Agriculture: A Double-Edged Sword

By Ervin Delas Peñas, UN SDSN Youth Philippines Volunteer | Published on December 8, 2020 3:57:50 PM

When one blurts out climate change, one immediately thinks of cars and smoke. OxFam had reported that although burning fossil fuels is the single biggest driver of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in contributing to climate change, “agriculture, deforestation and land-use change are also significant contributors to the problem.“ What is crucial to note here is that agriculture is a double-edged sword when it comes to climate change; it is both a victim and perpetrator of the wicked problem that is climate change.

From a global and numbers perspective, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered a report on climate change showing that agriculture contributes to a total of 25 percent of global emissions (2014). The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has found that 75 percent of deforestation is an effect of agricultural land expansion (Tilman et. al, 2011). Agriculture is also the largest contributor of non-carbon dioxide emissions: at a whopping 56 percent.

Humanity finds itself in the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by our human activities and its significant impacts on the planet’s systemic functions, and one should emphasize more on the negative implications this has on our current and future subsistence. As such, one should no longer confine their understanding of pollution and carbon emissions to merely urbanized areas and the usual activities that run in it. Deforestation is one contributing factor that worsens the climate situation that SDG 13 seeks to address. Part of a book on economic development states how deforestation is “caused by the clearing of tropical rain forests for agricultural purposes,“ and about 60 percent of these forest clearings are done by small farmers (2015, p. 523). Research done by the College of Forestry and Natural Resources of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) was able to quantify how much agriculture contributes to deforestation in the country: 21.05 percent, with kaingin (slash-and-burn method of plot clearing) as the top contributor making up 16.98 percent of the total 21.05. Swidden farming (English for kaingin) is “a traditional method of tending domesticated crops that involves the rotation of several plots of land in a planting cycle”. The Climate Institute mentions how “Slash-and-burn agriculture is responsible for the loss of around 50 acres of land every hour worldwide.” As such, traditional swidden is used pejoratively in certain communities or countries due to its need to cut down on nature, but if done with consideration for the land type and its recovery, the slash-and-burn method may prove to be effective as shown by these farmers in Northern Thailand.

Slash-and-burn agriculture is responsible for the loss of around 50 acres of land every hour worldwide. One of the issues with slash and burn is that fires intentionally set can unintentionally spread throughout the forest. When fire spreads to unintended areas, the protective forest canopy is destroyed. The resulting sun exposure to the forest floor intensifies the existing fire. The smoke then “hangs over the forest, and suppresses rainfall,” making it even more difficult to extinguish as the area becomes drier. According to The World Counts,”about 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from the clearing of tropical forests.”

Apart from traditional swidden is grassland burning, and according to a publication done jointly by the Philippine Government and United Nations Development Program, grassland burning releases carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides, all of which are greenhouse gases. The same report states the environmental damages kaingin incurs: loss of big trees; destruction of forests; grassland fires due to uncontrolled or accidental clearing; continuously degraded soil fertility; reduced water quantity and quality; and massive erosion and landslides.

On top of the environmental effects, farmers themselves struggle as more land is made less or not arable at all due to swidden agriculture. Once the new plot is no longer fertile, more land is cleared by means of kaingin, and the cycle goes on and even spans across generations as children of farmers inherit these lands. In addition, the same report made by the College of Forestry and Natural Resources of UPLB also mentions that “Even with the seemingly larger farm sizes, most of the farmer respondents say that their farm harvest is barely enough to sustain the household needs.“ The entry of land speculators also exacerbates the already unsustainable practice, adding to the competition for arable land as it decreases due to swidden or shifting agriculture. This has yet to consider the socio-economic standing and the lack of infrastructure our local farmers endure on top of these ecological problems. What remains to be seen then is the implementation of reform and innovative practices to help these farmers shift to better means of livelihood for their households, land, and crops.

Lastly (at least for this article), fertilizer use is another culprit of climate change. In the Philippines, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) also mentions how rice accounts for approximately 13% of global nitrogen fertilizer use. It is important to note that “most of the climate impact of nitrogen comes from nitrous oxide (or N2O) emissions from the soils to which fertilizers are applied” in addition to N2O being able to warm the atmosphere for a century after it’s emitted. N2O is also known to be 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat as a greenhouse gas (UN Environment Programme, 2019).

A report done by Greenpeace contains data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in positing that “between 1961 and 2005 fertilizer applications in the Philippines increased by 1000%, while yields of rice and maize increased only by 200 and 280% respectively.“ Again we see another unsustainable yet sustained practice that farmers continue to conduct despite the low yields. The same situation is seen with pesticides as their usage increased 325 percent in 1987 from 1977, yet rice productivity only increased by 30 percent.

In addition to the ineffectiveness of these farming aids, they actually contribute to soil degradation and loss of fertility if used inappropriately and excessively. Another fact worth noting is how much farmers spend on fertilizers and pesticides, which is 65 percent and 18.2 percent respectively (Source). One can imagine that if these farmers were to do without these aids and pursue sustainable alternatives instead, there will be a positive impact or at the very least mitigation in their expenditures, and thus they will enjoy more financial freedom.

The excessive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides also lead to negative externalities that pose health risks and environmental damages. According to Mahesh Pradhan, a nutrient pollution expert with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), “Human nitrogen additions to the soil, in the form of fertilizers, reinforce the greenhouse effect: around 60 percent of nitrous oxide is emitted from fertilized fields, manures, and other agricultural sources.” At a glance, it’s easy to spot that the saturated and continued use of fertilizers and pesticides cause a ripple effect. What is dubbed as fertilizer and pesticide runoff is the result of these substances running off to other unintended areas like bodies of water. Fertilizer runoffs produce nitrates that allow algal blooms to proliferate in lakes, coastal areas, and waterways. These algal blooms emit greenhouse gases as well. Pesticides, on the other hand, are poisonous to both humans and aquamarine life. Pesticides may also invade soil and water, contaminating crops and potable water that other people consume., on top of trigger[ing] chronic eye, skin, pulmonary, neurological, and renal problems in people…”

Going back to the outdated mindset of associating pollution to just industrialization and urbanization, one should consider rethinking their perception of pollution and climate change in terms of its underlying causes. In the era of the Anthropocene, the world demands more innovative solutions and breakthroughs, but the ultimate challenge is to convince and educate the public on these ecological matters; that our future is at stake, and ignorance is the first thing that should be addressed before expecting any widespread participation and engagement in resolving the issue.

Sources: Campbell, B. M., D. J. Beare, E. M. Bennett, J. M. Hall-Spencer, J. S. I. Ingram, F. Jaramillo, R. Ortiz, N. Ramankutty, J. A. Sayer, and D. Shindell. 2017. Agriculture production as a major driver of the Earth system exceeding planetary boundaries. Ecology and Society 22(4):8. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09595-220408/

Carandang, Antonio P. et al. 2013: Analysis of Key Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation in the Philippines. Manila, Philippines: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. Retrieved from: https://forestry.denr.gov.ph/redd-plus-philippines/publications/Analysis%20of%20key%20drivers%20of%20deforestation%20and%20forest%20degradation%20in%20the%20Philippines.pdf/

Greenpeace (2008). Agrochemical use in the Philippines and its consequences to the environment. Retrieved from https://greenpeace.to/publications/GPSEA_agrochemical-use-in-the-philip.pdf/

Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, October 29). Slash and Burn Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/slash-and-burn-agriculture-172665/

Packer, S. (2020, October 1). Fix nitrogen to fix climate change. Retrieved from https://theecologist.org/2020/oct/01/fix-nitrogen-fix-climate-change/

Raygorodetsky, G. (2016, March 8). These Farmers Slash and Burn Forests—But in a Good Way. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/03/160303-thailand-farmers-slash-and-burn-forests-climate-environment/

The World Counts. (n.d.). Hectares. of forests cut down or burned. Retrieved from https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/planet-earth/forests-and-deserts/rate-of-deforestation/story/

UNEP (2019, October 22). Why nitrogen management is key for climate change mitigation. Retrieved from https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/why-nitrogen-management-key-climate-change-mitigation/

Data Churner:
Sabrina Carlos
Program Intern
UN SDSN Youth Philippines

Graphic Designer:
Phil Zaldivar
Volunteer, Data Presenter
UN SDSN Youth Philippines