Growing up in Denmark, I’m old enough to remember when it was more clear if it was summer or winter. As schoolkids, we were taught about the threat of a new ice age.
A lot has happened since then. Today, we don’t worry about “global cooling” but rather “global warming”—or what we’re now calling “climate change,” in a term that is vague enough to capture either trend.
Our chief concern nowadays, of course, is the prospect of a hotter earth. The August report from the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that without immediate action, the planet’s temperatures by the end of the 21st century could rise by two degrees Celsius.
Whatever happens, farmers will adapt. We always have and we always will—and what we need from our public officials is the freedom to take up new technologies.
The IPCC’s new report contains the usual forecasts about a blighted future, prompting reporters to write sensationalistic stories about the need for radical steps to save the planet. Farmers like me have been taking a beating: We use too much gas, devote too many resources to meat production, and so on—and one journalist now seeks a “cow tax.”
Amid this fear and negativity, I’m forced to wonder whether warming would be entirely bad. It could extend the growing season in northern latitudes and give options to grow other crops, which could improve the world’s overall food security. Then again, new pests could create unforeseen challenges. There are always tradeoffs.
We should put our faith in the human ability to adapt.
People are capable of amazing innovations. Just look at the Netherlands, where about one-third of the country sits below sea level. With a system of dykes, pumps, and dunes, however, the ingenious Dutch have converted much of this into productive farmland. As a headline in the New York Times once put it: “The Dutch Have Solutions to Rising Seas.”
We’ll come up with other answers to the challenges of climate change, too.
On my farm, for instance, we’ve shifted away from conventional moldboard tillage to a no-till concept. Instead of turning over the dirt in our fields, a strategy used to kill weeds, we’ve started to leave the dirt in place and guard it with cover crops. This way, we guard against soil erosion and protect the nutrients that our commodity crops need.
An added benefit is that we’re emitting fewer greenhouse gases, for the simple reason that we’re not running our tractors as much as we once did and therefore not burning as much fuel. We also save money on spare parts and labor. Best of all, our plants are doing more to sequester carbon dioxide in the soil.
In Denmark, we are faced with a unique challenge: Our government does not allow the use of nitrogen-fixing species in our mandatory cover crops, arguing that their use will increase the risk of nitrates in the soil and water. For a government focused on supporting a climate smart agriculture policy, this contradicts the science that supports these crops as tools to help us sequester even more carbon in the soil.
Our system’s success also depends on access to crop-protection products—another technology that has revolutionized farming in recent decades.
This is the right way forward: Allow farmers to try different approaches and innovate, coming up with creative solutions to problems rather than ordering them around with rules and regulations that may do more harm than the good that is intended.
Many in the EU take the wrong approach. The proposed policy initiative, European Green Deal includes a command-and-control plan to devote a quarter of the continent’s farmland to organic production. It’s a recipe for farm production to drop, food prices to rise and conversion of rainforest in Brazil into farmland so they can help feed Europe.
This may not trouble the bureaucrats in Brussels, but it ought to worry just about everyone else—especially people who raise concerns over agriculture’s role in climate change. Instead of growing less food on more land, which is what these new plans essentially mandate, we should strive to grow more food on less land.
Technology already is leading us along this promising path. GMOs allow farmers to grow more food safely than ever before. The EU has blocked European farmers like me from taking full advantage of this tool, but we see how it has helped farmers in other parts of the developed world as well as smallholders like my friend Motlatsi Musi in South Africa.
The emerging science of gene editing also holds incredible potential. It could help crops improve their productivity as they fight weeds and pests and grapple with droughts, floods, heat, frost, and more. Scientists may even figure out how to have them pull additional carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
My biggest concern is too much focus on what we can’t change and not enough on trying to adapt. Rather than panicking about an environmental doomsday, let’s embrace the ability of technology and the willingness of farmers to make our world a better place.