Emerging Voices highlights new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges from contributing scholars and practitioners. This post is from Dr. D. Michael Shafer, president and founder of Warm Heart Worldwide and professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University. Warm Heart is a community-based development organization dedicated to building socially- and economically-sustainable communities in rural areas of northern Thailand.
Though a monumental step forward on climate change, the Paris Agreement fails to recognize one of the biggest climate change issues for developing countries: agriculture. Poor farmers’ dependence on unsustainable planting, cultivating, and harvesting techniques make them unwitting contributors to global warming by emitting black carbon and greenhouse gases (GHGs). This problem extends beyond China and India (the Paris deal’s focus) to places as diverse as Indonesia, Cameroon, and Iran.
By burning field wastes, poor farmers release up to twenty-five percent of the world’s total of “black carbon”—clouds of smoke that count as the second-largest warming source after CO2—emitting 330,000 metric tons every year.
And rice growers in impoverished and densely-populated areas produce high levels of methane, a hydrocarbon gas twenty-five times as warming as CO2. Traditional flooded paddy techniques account for up to fifteen percent of total GHG emissions from agriculture.
These agricultural practices are bad for the environment; they are also bad for people. Degraded soil yields barely enough to feed a family. To double the global food supply by 2050—necessary to avoid shortages and malnourishment, especially in developing countries—traditional farmers will need to improve land use and water management, and adopt new seed, harvesting, and storage technologies.
The good news is that solutions to reduce poor farmers’ global warming footprint and improve productivity already exist.
First, they can learn to convert their agricultural waste into biochar and then into biochar fertilizer. Agricultural biochar is a “super charcoal” made by pyrolyzing (charring) rice straw, corn cobs, or maize stalks at high heat without any oxygen, a clean process that is also carbon negative—meaning it removes CO2 from the atmosphere and cools the earth instead of warms it.
Making biochar is low-cost and low-tech, and its positive effects go beyond climate change mitigation to food security and health more generally. Poor farmers can use biochar as an additive to improve soil’s water penetration and retention—essential as drought conditions spread—to reduce acid levels, and to boost soil fertility. Biochar also aids in decontaminating soil near landfills, toxic waste dumps, and mines—areas where poor farmers are often relegated. For families lacking clean water access, biochar works as a natural water filter.
Second, rice growers can switch from standard flooded paddy techniques to a method known as “system for rice intensification,” or SRI. Rather than flooding the paddy for an entire growing season, SRI involves regularly draining and drying out the paddy, refilling it only when the rice begins to wilt. And instead of transplanting seed bundles from the nursery to flooded paddy mud, rice growers plant individual seedlings in orderly rows.
Though SRI requires more labor than traditional rice cultivation, it pays more dividends. Because SRI paddies are mostly dry, they reduce the methane released into the environment. SRI can also increase a farmer’s yields by as much as fifty percent, and reduce water needs by forty percent.
Yet many poor, rural farmers are not aware that these solutions exist, for several reasons. They may be skipped over by development programs that test innovative projects in select locations—often those most likely to yield results. Others are distrustful of “development” advice from outsiders, so that even when biochar or SRI programs make it to their villages, they fail to take off.
So what can work?
Agricultural development in poor, rural farming communities that is spread by example. Farmers are more likely to try something when they see another’s success. Grassroots programs such as Digital Green do this by producing short, instructional videos that film poor farmers using simple, easily-replicated, and low-cost techniques. With little more than a tiny, battery-powered projector, Digital Green then shares the videos with women’s co-ops and other community members—ninety percent of whom adopt the innovation, compared to a ten percent adoption rate for expert-led trainings.
From a climate change perspective, the benefits of cleaner, more productive, and more sustainable agriculture in poor, rural areas will be striking and immediate.
Switching from burning field waste to making biochar would significantly reduce the amount of black carbon and CO2 equivalent released into the atmosphere each year, as well as their warming effects. And switching from flooded paddy to SRI could cut total methane emissions from rice production by between twenty-two and sixty-two percent. Converting just a quarter of Asian rice growers, who produce roughly ninety percent of the world’s rice, could reduce GHG emissions by 3.8 percent annually—nearly Japan’s annual contribution to global GHG emissions.
From a human development perspective, the changes will also be immense, helping to feed the estimated 2.5 to 3 billion people the world will add by 2050.
Most importantly, limiting poor farmers’ global warming contribution and improving the health and wellbeing of millions will not require expensive overheads, long-term aid interventions, or complicated, high-tech innovations. But it will require considering agriculture as vital to any climate change solution.