We are faced with two crises on a planetary scale — climate change and species extinction. Our current modes of production and consumption, starting with the Industrial Revolution and aggravated by the advent of industrial agriculture, have contributed to both.
If no action is taken to reduce greenhouse gases, we could experience a catastrophic 4°C increase in temperatures by the end of the century.
But climate change is not just about global warming. It is leading to intensification of droughts, floods, cyclones and other extreme weather events, as we are witnessing in Jammu and Kashmir where more than 200 lives have been lost.
Never having exceeded 280 ppm (part per million) until the Industrial Revolution, current carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are at 395 ppm. Nitrous oxide (N20) and methane are greenhouse gases like CO2, only more potent. According to a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) report, N20 has roughly 300 times the global warming potential of CO2, while methane is roughly 20 times stronger. N2O and methane emissions have increased dramatically due to industrial agriculture. N2O is emitted through the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, and methane is emitted from livestock farms that produce dairy, meat and eggs.
The UN Leipzig Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in 1995 assessed that 75 per cent of the world’s biodiversity had disappeared in agriculture because of the Green Revolution and industrial farming. The disappearance of pollinators and beneficial soil organisms is another dimension of biodiversity erosion due to industrial agriculture.
Climate change, agriculture and biodiversity are intimately connected. The spread of monocultures and increasing use of chemical fertilisers, combined with the destruction of habitats, have contributed to the loss of biodiversity which would have helped sequester greenhouse gases.
Chemical monocultures, more vulnerable to failure in the context of an unstable climate, is hardly a system we can rely on for food in times of uncertainty. Adapting to unpredictable climate change requires diversity at every level and biodiverse systems are not just more resilient to climate change, they are more productive in terms of nutrition per acre.
It is not that humanity was unaware of — and did not take steps to avert — the climate and biodiversity crises. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992, the international community signed two legally binding agreements — the UNFCC and the UN Convention on the Conservation of Biodiversity. Both treaties were shaped by knowledge from the emerging ecological sciences and the growing ecology movements. One was a scientific response to the ecological impact of pollution due to the use of fossil fuels, the other a scientific response to the erosion of biodiversity due to the spread of industrial, chemical monocultures, as well as genetic pollution caused by genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Article 19.3 of the Convention on the Conservation of Biological Diversity provides for parties to consider the need for, and modalities of, a protocol setting out procedures for the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from biotechnology that may have an adverse effect on biodiversity and its components. This led to the implementation of the Biosafety Protocol.
Biosafety scientifically assesses the impact of GMOs on the environment, public health and socio-economic conditions, insuring social and ecological sustainability of agriculture and food systems. Agroecology-based systems conserve biodiversity, increase health and nutrition per acre, provide food security and increase climate resilience.
But since 1992, the big polluters — the fossil fuel industry and the agrichemical industry (which is now also the biotechnology industry) — have done everything possible to subvert the legally binding, science-based, international environmental treaties on climate change and biodiversity. But their attacks on ecological science stand on unscientific grounds and are irresponsible because they push us closer to disaster and prevent a change in spite of scientific evidence showing we have better alternatives that work.
We must move away from industrial, chemical-intensive agriculture and a centralised, global commodity-based food system that contributes to emissions. In place of biodiversity destroying industrial monocultures, including those based on GMO seeds, we need a shift to agroecological practices that conserve biodiversity and ensure biosafety. A transition to biodiversity-intensive, ecologically-intensive agriculture addresses both the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis simultaneously, while also addressing the food crisis. Even though industrial agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and more vulnerable to it, there is an attempt by the biotechnology industry to use the climate crisis as an opportunity to further push GMOs and deepen their monopoly on seeds through biopiracy-based patents on climate resilient seeds that were bred by farmers over generations. But, as Einstein said, “We cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.”
Centralised, monoculture-based, fossil fuel intensive systems, including GMO agriculture, are not flexible. They cannot adapt and evolve. We need flexibility, resilience and adaptation to a changed reality. This resilience comes from diversity. This diversity of knowledge, economics and politics is what I call Earth Democracy.
Kashmir faces a tragedy this year like Uttarakhand did last year. When rainfall in one day is five-six times more than normal, it is an extreme event. This is what climate change is all about. It has cost lives, has washed away villages, farms, roads, bridges. Human activities have created disasters like the flood in Kashmir. Human action is needed to prevent such climate disasters. We cannot sit as mute spectators while India's paradise on earth becomes "Paradise Lost".