It was surprising when there were few fruits on the cherry trees at the beginning of summer, the very same trees that had blossomed with white flowers the previous spring. Most of the buds had been sunburnt and dropped before they could become fruit. We could not make sense of these small burnt fruit despite there being no frost. We stumbled upon the reason from an elderly farmer who has been taking care of cherry trees for many years. The things he had to say all showed signs of how climate change is going to affect food production:
"We had sudden rainfall just as the flowers were turning to fruit. The sun shone brightly immediately after. The raindrops acted like glass lenses, directing the hot sun beams onto the small fruit, burning them..."
People in the mountain village in which I live, in south-east of Izmir, Turkey, have been telling me that most of the vegetables and fruit they grow have ripened sooner and rotted before they could be picked. They then say "There's something strange with the weather this year..."
In the Cayster basin, apples, walnuts and grapes all ripened 15 to 20 days early. Everybody you talk to who works with the land on the Cayster plain or on the surrounding mountains will tell you that seasons are arriving between 20 days and a month too early. The sowing and planting seasons, timed by the villagers using age-old spring and winter feasts, are now off. For example, for centuries, people used to be able to gather dew which had formed on leaves overnight on Ederlezi, a spring festival from the Anatolian folk calendar, and use it to ferment yogurt. But for the last two years, no dew could be found on the leaves on Ederlezi: it had not rained at all over the summer. We saw no more than two hours of rain until late November. And even then, it was a light shower... Our four-metre deep rain water reservoir used for irrigation is close to drying up. Friends who farm on the Cayster plain tell me that there are sink holes as deep as three metres because of the overuse of groundwater. Groundwater levels keep falling.
Whilst this is all happening at the countryside, people in towns and cities living lives cut off from nature do not realise the chain reaction climate change is having on the weather, soil, plants, animals and consequently on food production, on our palates, our bellies and our health. Because, whilst the cherries are getting sunburnt, the tomatoes are rotting in their field and shrivelled up olives are waiting for the rain so that they can be picked, the supermarket aisles are filling up with more and more fake food. Dinner tables appear to be richer with a diverse array of shiny foods, but are losing more and more of their nutritious value.
Yes, the climate is changing and there is a lot of strangeness in the air. People working in agriculture or gardening know how periods of pollination, flowering and fruit development are closely related to the climate conditions. They also know that, in order to be pollinated, fruit and vegetables are dependent on bees, insects, birds, the wind and certain humidity and temperature. Plants and animals are immediately affected by changes in climate because this regulates their entire cycle, everything from nutrition to reproduction. Thus, if we do not take the necessary measures or develop adaptation strategies, the strangeness in the air will continue to find its way to our dinner tables as is already the case. Yet, here is the conflict: while producing food under threat of climate change, we are not abandoning the practices causing this change. In other words, the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere causing the climate change are a by-product of widespread methods of industrial agriculture which, in turn, threaten our food, and subsequently, our health.
As an example, practices of monoculture, where hundreds of hectares of land are planted with the same plant repeatedly, seriously impoverish the soil. This causes the need for more use of pesticides and artificial fertiliser. And this, in turn, means further impoverishment and the release of more greenhouse gasses.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation's (FAO) report Greening the Economy with Climate-Smart Agriculture points to how conventional farming practices account for 58% of greenhouse gasses and is a source of nitrogen oxide, mostly due to fertiliser use.
The relationship between agriculture, food and the climate
Where the relationship between agriculture, food and the climate is concerned, there is much to talk about from mass bee deaths and the damage caused by extreme drought or floods to agricultural production through to the increased packaging of food. The production, processing, packaging and transportation of food is responsible for more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions. And the real problem lies in the production phase rather than the long distances over which it is transported. For example, the harmful gasses released during the production of food accounts for more than 80% of the total life cycle emissions. World animal husbandry also accounts for about 15% of yearly carbon dioxide emissions. Similarly, pesticides, chemical fertilisers, fossil fuels for farm equipment, carbon emissions from tilling the soil and many more factors are among the main concerns of the effects of agricultural production on climate change.
FAO’s Committee on World Food Security has stressed that climate change will lead to a 16% decrease in agricultural production. This situation can lead to a fall in grain production in 65 countries and the decrease in arable land in developing countries by 11%. For example, because of the drought and untimely rains in 2014, the yield of wheat production in Turkey fell as much as 30% in some regions.
Despite this, as long as supermarket shelves are full, people are not concerned with what is going on in the fields or orchards. As trees blossom less, as flowers don't turn to fruit, as fruits rot before ripening, it becomes harder and harder to see real food in supermarkets. More room is made for artificial ones, those that pretend to be food; the shelves are full but real food is on a decrease...
Despite all this, where climate change is concerned, the discussion of agriculture and food security is nowhere near that of energy and transportation. Yet, neither energy nor transportation are the most critical part of the issue. How important can energy and transportation be, when compared to food and water?
The fact that awareness of this issue is not created is leading to indifference in studying adaptation to climate change – a threat which needs to be worked on day and night.
For the future of real food, it is necessary to develop climate change adaptation strategies whilst also laying down measures to reduce the impact climate change has on agriculture. In coming years, when drought will increase and biological extinction will accelerate, there will be a need for knowledge on climate change adaptation in agriculture among many other areas. For example, no-till farming, increasing soil restoration and water-retention capacity, climate-resistant species and seeds, practices of gathering rainwater, the efficient and correct use of water are all issues we must bring up relentlessly.
The issue is no longer one that concerns only farmers or producers, but concerns us all. Permaculture, ecological agriculture, the spreading of heirloom seeds and holistic pasture management are all practices used today to promote climate change adaptation and ecosystem restoration. Supporting efforts to produce through natural methods by small farmers, who find themselves stuck between artificial production methods and “market” impositions, is a fundamental condition in establishing food security.
Time is running out. Although we must keep questioning industrial farming methods, we must still focus much of our efforts on finding solutions and acting on adaptation and restoration strategies. For example, every house, every building complex, every workshop, every facility, every neighbourhood, every farm, every village can collect rainwater. Every house, every building complex, every neighbourhood, every farm, every village can produce its own energy. More can be done on the planting of drought-resistant species, increasing the capacity of water-retention in soil and programmes for gathering rainwater.
‘The power of local communities’, voiced a lot in recent years in regards to energy, is also valid for agricultural production. Turning to local, participatory and small-scale projects rather than large-scale, centrally-managed projects that waste more energy, tire out the soil and support monoculture and industrial agriculture, makes it easier to implement methods that are in harmony with nature.
FAO says that holistic methods which take ecological cycles into account will be beneficial in adapting to climate change. This is because populations with genetic diversity and ecosystems rich in species have greater potential to adapt to climate change. Instead of monoculture over large areas, planting different species which mutually support one another may make up for the loss of yield in single-crop production caused by climate change. Methods such as crop rotation, mixed plantation, green fertilisers, composting, using local varieties and ploughing less land all allow us to stop the overuse of fertiliser, thus considerably reduce greenhouse gas emission.
Contrary to general assumption, we do not need industrial farming methods which release greenhouse gasses to feed the world population with a healthy diet. Yonca Demir of Bilgi University in Istanbul and researcher Bulut Arslan prove in their research “Can eco-farming feed Turkey?” that this can be done. Moreover, it is possible to achieve this using only half of Turkey’s arable land.
Therefore, if we look more closely at the relationship between agriculture, food and the climate, and bring more awareness to it, practices of restoration and adaptation may become more prevalent. This way, it will be possible to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and the adverse effects of climate change.