Australia’s Wildfires Part of a Vicious Cycle of Food & Fire

A fire in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, December 30,
2019. Photo by Ned Dawson for Victoria State Government.

By John Leary and Lindsay Cobb
SILVER SPRINGS, Maryland, Jan 13 2020 (IPS)

“Unprecedented.” “Hell on Earth.”

In Australia, these terms are being used to describe 17.9
million acres of burned land so far. While fires of this magnitude
are certainly unprecedented, they’re far from unexpected.

Climatologists have warned
that the changing climate will have
vast implications for our planet’s weather patterns and natural
disasters. But these warnings have done little to drive urgent
climate action.

More and more it seems that the world needs anthropologists, not
climatologists, to understand the real trajectory of climate
change, trends, long-term impacts, “Band-Aid” solutions, and to
pinpoint the root causes.

The reason for the magnitude of these fires is complex and
certainly requires attention to climate, but it can all be traced
back to one thing: How we grow our food.

Fire Begets Food

Humans have been influencing the land and environment for the
sake of food for centuries.

Australia’s landscape did not always look like it does today.
Historians and scientists can point back to a time when humans’
need for food completely altered the continent’s natural

50,000 years ago, Australian Aboriginals used “fire stick
farming” as a way to hunt large animals. Equipped with torches,
humans burned forests to drive out, trap and kill things to

This tactic happened on such an extreme level in Australia that
humans were able to drive hairy rhinoceroses, massive birds, giant
kangaroos, wombats, and other massive marsupials to extinction.

Humans forever changed Australia’s plant and wildlife

Sadly, this practice is still in use today and we’ve seen it
up close in places such as Mali and Central African Republic. But a
different form of “fire farming” is used on a much larger scale
in the 21st century.

The modern global food system is dependent on open land because

monocropped cereal grains are at the core of our diets
. Growing
rows of grain is cost-effective, it can be fed to animals, and it
is easily turned into processed food.

The agriculture industry and farmers of every kind have cleared
trees at a rate of
5 million hectares a year
to make room for crops like corn,
wheat, and soy. The easiest ways to do this are either spray the
area with an herbicide that kills plants or by lighting fires to
burn and clear the land of trees, shrubs, and grasses.

This is called swidden, or slash-and-burn agriculture. It has

plagued farmers
for centuries and it is exactly what is
happening to the

Food Begets Fire

Setting aside the lasting developmental and health implications
of the global diet, the destructive land use practices to achieve
this diet are 1) unsustainable and 2)
the leading cause of climate change

As the population increases, our need for food production
increases. Humans work to grow more food and clear more land. As
forests are burned and cleared, carbon is released into the
atmosphere and ecosystems are strained.

Excess carbon has nowhere to go and increases temperatures.
Higher temperatures exacerbate drought and the breakdown of
ecosystems and environmental health. It becomes harder to grow food
in these conditions, so more land is cleared to feed the growing

High temperatures and drought also mean wildfires are more
likely to burn out of control. This
negative feedback loop
is cut and dry: fire causes warming,

warming causes fire

In a cruel irony, often the offenders on the ground do not
experience the worst of these effects. Weather systems and patterns
are liable to change around the world,
affecting the most vulnerable people first

This is true for the smallholder farmers in Trees for the
Future’s Forest Garden program. Farming families in developing
countries are subject to the impacts of climate change with no
control over seed supply, no crop insurance, and few municipal
programs for a safety net.

Although, there is one major outlier in the disproportionate
effects of climate change: Australia. Long-standing climatic
predictions have suggested that Australia would be an exception –
a developed country facing the dramatic repercussions of man-made
climate change, despite its GDP.

“The country was founded on genocidal indifference to the
native landscape and those who inhabited it, and its modern
ambitions have always been precarious: Australia is today a society
of expansive abundance, jerry-rigged onto a very harsh and
ecologically unforgiving land,” writes David Wallace-Wells in

An Uninhabitable Earth

Wood Burns, Woods Don’t

A healthy forest is full of wood and yet, it cannot burn.

Why? Consider how to build a campfire: A camper needs tinder,
kindling, and fuel. Tinder and kindling are critical in turning a
spark into a flame. Once the flame is truly established, the camper
adds fuel to the fire in the form of logs and the logs are able to
maintain the burn.

Even in the dry season, where there may be small isolated fires
across a dry landscape, a forest should not burn uncontrollably.
But today, many forests around the globe are surrounded by

A common form of tinder is brush and grassland maintained for
grazing animals like cow or sheep. Another is parched crops or what
is left behind after harvest: crop residue, the stubble of a cut
grain still attached to the root.

Farmers around the globe –
, and
– are all too familiar with the danger a lightning
storm poses in the dry season. A lightning strike can literally
destroy hundreds of acres of a crop or grasslands in a matter of

Put that field next to a forest during prolonged drought and a
spark from a transformer or lightning storm has plenty of dry
tinder and kindling to get started.

The Australian fires burning right now are countless. Fires are
raging all over the country;
national parks
, and
farmland now burning
were all parched in the wake of
record-breaking heat and drought.

The country is a veritable tinderbox, and with plenty of fuel in
their path, little can be done to stop the fires as they envelope
swaths of countryside.

How We Fix It

Food production is the problem, but it’s also the

When the agriculture industry and smallholder farmers embrace
sustainable farming methods, incorporate trees into the growing
process, and find alternatives to monocropping, their impact on the
environment will change for the better.

Farmers have
historically fought suggestions of man-made climate change

because of the implications for their bottom line. But as they
start to feel the effects of a warming climate and recognize that
land use is a major contributor to the problem, many farmers are
turning a corner and becoming climate activists themselves.

In Australia, nonprofit
Farmers for Climate Action
supports “farmers to build climate
and energy literacy and advocate for climate solutions both on and
off farm.” It’s groups like this that will be integral in
shifting public understanding and support of a transformational
food system.

Trees for the Future
works with farmers in sub-Saharan Africa
who have long practiced slash-and-burn tactics to clear land for
monocrops like maize or peanuts. These farmers are contributing to
deforestation, and the prolonged periods of drought they suffer
through are evidence that they’re feeling the impacts of man-made
climate change.

Fortunately, shortly after they integrate trees and
sustainability into their farming,
these farmers see vast improvements in their soil health,
biodiversity, and micro-climates
. Abandoning monocrop
techniques for agroforestry and regenerative methods also increases
their production and incomes – proving that changing the way we
farm does not translate to a decrease in profits, but rather the

Much like financial diversity, crop diversity helps to ensure
resilience in the face of unexpected challenges and environmental

“Trees once provided natural protection, acting as dug-in
soldiers shielding countries from typhoons, hurricanes, and
monsoons. They covered the country sides, cooled the land, brought
the rain and channeled excess water back into the ground,” write
John Leary in
One Shot: Trees as Our Last Chance for Survival

“Trees provide both CO2 reduction and mitigation, serving as a
nonpartisan weapon that is exempt from climate politics, whose
beneficial existence is not subject to scientific evidence or
debate. So their value should be recognized, right?”

When we stop clearing our trees and start embracing their
benefits, we’ll see a shift in the negative climate trends
plaguing regions subject to natural disasters.

We can create a positive feedback loop wherein planting more
trees and ending deforestation results in predictable weather
patterns, healthier ecosystems, and fewer trees lost to
unprecedented, catastrophic wildfires.

*Learn more about
Trees for the Future’s work with smallholder farmers
, and
visit their
Forest Garden Training Center
to learn how to implement
regenerative agriculture practices.

Remember to
give responsibly
when donating to Australia wildfire response
. Trees for the Future is working to end hunger and
poverty for smallholder farmers through revitalizing degraded
lands. Learn more about
Trees for the Future
and see their latest data in their
30th Anniversary Special
Edition 2019 Impact Report

The post
Australia’s Wildfires Part of a Vicious Cycle of Food &
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John Leary is Executive Director
Trees for the Future
* & Lindsay Cobb is
Marketing and Communications Manager

The post
Australia’s Wildfires Part of a Vicious Cycle of Food &
appeared first on Inter
Press Service

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Australia’s Wildfires Part of a Vicious Cycle of Food & Fire