Cooling the Planet with Sustainable Community Food Systems

Agriculture can cool the planet, promote food security and community sovereignty, and protect biodiversity with sustainable farming practices.

So far we’ve covered the ways in which our industrial food system is fueling climate change, and how climate change, in turn, is becoming a major threat to food security. But the good news is that the solutions are in our midst. As leading agricultural scientist Tim LaSalle has said: “Agriculture could move from being one of the major contributors to the climate crisis to actually being one of its easiest, fastest cures. Because we would move from an emissions-based focus of chemical use to a biological-based focus of carbon sequestration.”

In short, sustainable agriculture can actually hold carbon in the soil and keep it out of the atmosphere, which helps to cool down the planet. In order to adopt this sort of climate-friendly agriculture on a major scale, we need to move away from industrial agriculture to sustainable, community-based food systems. Here are some ways in which sustainable community food systems are part of the solution to climate change:

Promoting Food Security:

Community food systems support and promote small-scale farming and the ability for communities to feed themselves. These systems link more closely producer and consumer and in so doing decrease the distance between field and plate. Community-based food systems also tend to honor and promote regional foods. In contrast to producing monocrops for export or feed crops like soy and corn, these crops are often bred for the unique environments where they’re raised so that they’re naturally heartier, healthier, and better able to withstand weather extremes. Food security in an age of climate change must include actions to build greater social and ecological resilience, such as developing regional and national food reserves, organizing community-led watershed restoration projects in Rajasthan, India, and expanding agroforestry through the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya.

Protecting Biodiversity:

 Community food systems promote and protect food biodiversity by cultivating a wide range of crop varieties and through seed saving and seed sharing. As climate change worsens, this biodiversity is an essential element to being able to have affordable and accessible food sources in the future. In one study comparing organic and conventional agriculture in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, researchers found that organic farming increased biodiversity at “every level of the food chain,” from birds and mammals, to flora, all the way down to the bacteria in the soil.1 Worldwatch 2009 proposes five alternative planting arrangements to respond to climate change and protect the environment, while increasing soil productivity.  One is to minimize tillage through conservation tillage practices, or no-till. Others include planting perennial grains instead of annual grains, developing agroforestry intercrops, and tree crops for food, feed, and fuel.

Supporting Organic and Sustainable Farming Practices:

Community food systems can help replace dependence on fossil fuels and chemicals, which are major contributors to climate change, with a symbiotic relationship with nature that taps ecological rhythms and fertility. By working with nature, natural farming systems can emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases. Studies have shown that small-scale sustainable farms emit between one-half and two-thirds less carbon dioxide for every acre of production.2 By one estimate, converting 10,000 medium-sized farms to organic would store as much carbon in the soil as we would save in emissions if we took one million cars off the road.3 And because organic farms, by their design, build healthy soil, organic soils are better able to absorb water, making them more stable during floods, droughts, and extreme weather changes. In ongoing studies by the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute, organic crops outperformed nonorganic crops in times of drought, yielding thirty-five to one hundred percent more in drought years than conventional crops.4 In one example, conventional rice farmers in Japan were nearly wiped out by an unusually cold summer, while organic farmers in the same region still yielded sixty to eighty percent of their typical production levels.5


1.  D. G. Hole et al., “Does Organic Farming Benefit Biodiversity?,” Biological Conservation 122 (2005): 113-30. Quoting James Randerson, “Organic Farming Boosts Biodiversity,” New Scientist October 11, 2004. (Note: New Scientist emphasizes that neither of the two groups of researchers—from the government agency, English Nature, and from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—“has a vested interest in organic farming.”)
2.  IPCC, Climate Change 2007: Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
3.  See, for instance, studies from the Rodale Institute, found here.
4.  “Organic crops perform up to 100 percent better in drought and flood years,” November 7, 2003, Rodale Institute. Online at
5.  Nadia El-Hage Scialabba and Caroline Hattam, “Organic Agriculture, Environment and Food Security,” ed. Environment and Natural Resources Service Sustainable Development Department (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2002). Available online here.