Soil degradation: over one-third of the Corn Belt, the epicenter of American corn and soybean production, has lost its carbon-rich top soil. Credit: Bigstock.
By Esther Ngumbi
URBANA, Illinois, Feb 26 2021 (IPS)
The White House, under the Presidency of Joe Biden just released an Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains stating the country needs to have resilient, diverse and secure supply chains to ensure economic prosperity and national security. Among the acknowledged threats that can reduce the resilience of America’s supply chains include climate change and extreme weather events.
Indeed, climate change and extreme weather, all of which have become very frequent and of economic importance, can have a huge impact on the agricultural sector. This was already evident before the global pandemic.
Soil degradation is a global problem with a third of Earth’s soil considered to be degraded in part due to agriculture. Without healthy soils, that play many critical roles including storing soil carbon, resilient agriculture won’t be possible
For example, recently, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service reported that 2020 was tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record. In the same year, the United States experienced many climate change related extremities including the Iowa derecho, a costly thunderstorm disaster, California wildfires and flooding in Michigan . These extremities have already began happening in 2021, and are expected to continue.
The move by the Biden Administration is commendable. A question that becomes central is –how does a resilient agricultural system that is resistant to climate change and extreme weather events look like? What are the pillars? Can resiliency in today’s United States agricultural systems be achieved? Could we unleash operation warp speed to create resilient agricultural systems that are critical to meeting US food security needs?
Of course, there will be many visions and pathways to achieving resilience in agricultural sector, because agriculture and the agricultural value and supply chain is complex with many pillars and activities that are linked and interdependent. Despite the complexities involved in building resilience, there are a few fundamental and key things that must happen.
First and foremost, a resilient agricultural system must be rooted in healthy soils. Soils is the foundation of life and the base upon which we grow resilient crops. Healthy soils are necessary and a prerequisite to achieving sustainable national food security. They are also a useful resource in the fight against the worsening climate change as they absorb carbon from air and store it.
Alarmingly, soils are unhealthy and degraded. A recently published paper reported that over one-third of the Corn Belt, the epicenter of American corn and soybean production, has lost its carbon-rich top soil. Soil degradation is a global problem with a third of Earth’s soil considered to be degraded in part due to agriculture. Without healthy soils, that play many critical roles including storing soil carbon, resilient agriculture won’t be possible.
Secondly, resilient agricultural system must be fully vaccinated from climate change and extremities that come with a changing climate. Just like we have rolled operation warp speed to tackle COVID-19, it is important to unleash science based solutions to vaccinate our agricultural systems. From using artificial intelligence to predict climate-related disasters such as flooding, drought, and insect pests to planting climate-smart crops that can withstand disasters to using smart and intelligent systems all through the agricultural value and supply chains to ensure that agriculture and food systems stay ahead of all the challenges.
Thirdly, resilient agricultural systems must be racially inclusive, just and equitable. According to data evidence, there are fewer Black farmers, a number that has reduced from nearly 1 million farmers in 1920 to less than 50 000 farmers, because of historic discrimination, exclusion and inequities in federal agricultural policies.
It is commendable that US Senators led by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tina Smith (D-MN), Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) are taking the lead in changing these statistics by introducing a comprehensive bill that addresses these injustices.
Finally, resilient systems must be built in ways that allow for ways to transparently monitor and track progress made. Americans deserve transparency.
The task of building resilient American supply chains amidst the current challenges is no doubt difficult but it can be achieved by focusing on healthy soils, vaccinated crops and equitable and just agricultural systems. The time is now.
Dr. Esther Ngumbi is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and a Senior Food Security Fellow with the Aspen Institute, New Voices.
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