A chunk of ice the size of New York City has broken away from the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
Both Arctic and Antarctic ice have been disappearing at an alarming rate in recent years. There is no real dispute in the scientific community about the cause of the warming trend that is melting the ice caps and causing ocean water levels to rise. It’s caused by human activities.
Meanwhile, back at the tarsands, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions rose by four per cent in 2007, about 30 million tonnes higher than in 2006. Some sectors had reduced production of GHGs, including pulp and paper, forestry, and the chemical industry.
Residential consumption remained stable. But the mining sector’s GHG emissions jumped by the incredible figure of 276 per cent. No, mining methods haven’t suddenly become less energy efficient. The sharp rise is caused by large-scale strip mining for oil.
Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about the tarsands as an ecological disaster zone. If Canada had never opened that can of toxic waste, we’d be much closer to reducing, rather than increasing, our carbon footprint, even in prosperous times. Now that the economy of Alberta, and by extension that of the whole country, is pinned to expensive, inefficient, and filthy oil production; it’s going to take a great deal of political courage to reverse the trend.
But supposing we were able to shut down the tarsands project tomorrow. Suppose we all learn to drive less—a lot less—in much more efficient cars. Imagine that we curtail our electrical energy habit to the point where all the coal fired power plants shut down overnight.
These are all big and necessary steps, but the best they can achieve is to slow down the rate at which we are irrevocably altering the future of the planet. Is there anything at all that can be done that will actually reverse the process, by taking carbon out of the atmosphere?
There is, and while it’s a political project at least as daunting as shutting down the oilsands or changing the way we drive, it’s something that any consumer can effect every week at the grocery store. According to research conducted by the Rodale Institute, “practical organic agriculture, if practised on the planet’s 3.5 billion tillable acres, could sequester nearly 40 per cent of current CO2 emissions.”
Carbon sequestration occurs when carbon is trapped in soils. Rodale’s 30-year side-by-side studies of conventional modern methods and organic farming have demonstrated that while the first strips the soil of carbon, releasing it into the atmosphere, the latter locks up carbon in the soil, where it contributes to the land’s productivity. Or, as Rodale’s webpage puts it: “Organically managed soils can convert carbon from a greenhouse gas into a food-producing asset.”
By switching the world’s food production from chemically based agriculture to organic farming, not only would we begin to sequester large quantities of carbon, we would radically reduce our energy consumption, and therefore our production of GHGs, at the same time increasing the long-term productivity of our farmlands.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change, global agriculture contributes about 12 per cent of GHG emissions. In the US, that figure is closer to 20 per cent. Rodale’s studies show a 33 per cent reduction in farm-energy consumption simply by using cover crops and composts instead of chemical fertilizers.
Canada, like almost every country in the developed world, is pumping billions of dollars into keeping our ailing economy afloat. Even our Conservative government, born of the radical Reaganite deficit-cutting movement of the 1980s, is willing to plunge into debt to help the country “weather the storm.”
Here in the Yukon we stand to benefit from millions in federal infrastructure money. There are a lot of ways we could spend this money to promote sustainability, but none would be so effective as the creation of a local, sustainable, organic system of food production.
In these modern times, when anything you want can be trucked up the highway in a matter of days, it’s easy to forget how isolated the Yukon is. But as fuel grows ever more scarce, the cost of shipping all our supplies for thousands of miles could make life here very difficult for all but the wealthiest among us. Those who can’t afford the rising costs can cut down on our consumer goods, but when the cost of food goes out of reach, what are we to do?
In the meantime, organic agriculture in the Yukon is so tiny in scale, and distant commercial agribusiness so deeply subsidized by public funds, that the relative cost of a local head of lettuce or pound of meat is daunting for many consumers. Here is a place where infrastructure spending could make a great difference in employment, sustainability, health, and quality of life while reducing energy consumption and GHG emissions.
With rich soils in our river basins and long sunny summer days, the Yukon has some great advantages in organic farming. We have a small but active community of organic enthusiasts, and among them a body of knowledge of proven farming methods that work in the North. But creating agricultural infrastructure costs a lot of money—just the kind of big money that the federal government is trying to spend.
With a little political vision, we have the potential to fundamentally alter our future for the better, not the worse, and to set a standard by which the world could do the same.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.