In the Garden January 2016

By Peg Keenleyside

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris this December has, amazingly, resulted in a far-reaching ambition amongst some 200 signatory countries: an agreement to limit global warming by “well below 2 degrees C” by mid-century.

Under the deal, countries are bound to publish greenhouse gas reduction targets and revise them upward every five years, while striving to drive down their carbon output “as soon as possible.”

The long-term goal is a carbon neutral planet by the second half of this century; one where the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated is equal to the amount of greenhouse gas the planet can absorb through its soil, oceans and forests.

What does this all mean for our little corner of the universe, you might be wondering? Essentially, it would appear, it means going on a massive global carbon diet for a really, really long time.

This is a tall order for a gas-guzzling, energy hungry economy such as ours. Like any major economic and social change (remember when recycling started?), it’s bound to take some substantial changes in our everyday behavior.

One of those changes might be growing at least some of your own food during the summer months, joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) at a local farm or shopping at farmer’s markets. You’ve heard it before but it’s now more relevant than ever: When you grow or buy your food locally you will be personally contributing to global CO2 emissions reduction.

Want to do some calculations about your current carbon footprint when it comes to buying food flown in from around the world? Check out the website for your “Carbon Calories.”

Air cargo, for example, comes in at 1.53 kg of CO2 per ton-mile. That planeload of lettuce from Mexico racks up about 4,123 kg of carbon on its way to your winter salad.

Kale and cabbage, on the other hand, grow right here in the Pacific Northwest all winter long.

Just the simple act of switching up your vegetable choices to seasonally available local produce can make a difference in the big picture.

And the big picture is daunting. In 2013 the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the U.S. produced 6,673 million metric tons of CO2. On an individual basis that means we’re producing about 20 tons of CO2 a year per person.

So not only do we need to go on a carbon reduction diet, we also need to enhance the ways in which the earth can absorb CO2.

Most people are aware of the huge role forests play in absorbing CO2. Halting massive deforestation around the world has been on the agenda for some time, but at the Paris talks the role of agriculture in enhancing the capacity of the earth’s soil as a CO2 absorption system also got a new focus. This is because science tells us soil has a huge capacity to store carbon.

Currently, industrialized farming methods in the west, and poor farming techniques in the developing world, are a major contributor to carbon emissions. Organic farming techniques such as adding organic matter to the farm soil, growing cover crops and opting for low tillage techniques will decrease the amount of carbon release associated with conventional industrial farming. It will also have the added benefit of increasing the soil’s capacity for carbon absorption.

It’s going to take a bit of a revolution in crop management systems, and a substantial change in the way we consume food, but the alternative, as the saying goes, is just not very palatable.

This month, as you take some time to digest the Paris agreement on climate change, consider how you can decrease your food carbon footprint this year.

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