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Published: Wednesday 25 November 2009   

While agriculture and food production have long been considered untouchable in international climate talks, calls to make the sector contribute to greenhouse gas mitigation efforts have been growing louder.


An EU working documentPdf external on agriculture (April 2009) states that the farming sector will suffer in the long-term unless structural and technological changes are made and adaptation measures are implemented. The document also acknowledges the sector's contribution to total emissions alongside its mitigation potential, and underlines the importance of developing synergies between the two. 

A recent reportexternal by the Worldwatch Institute, a think-tank, stresses the climate change mitigation potential of agriculture too. It argues that agriculture and land management have not received enough attention from scientists and politicians, while a number of innovations in food production and land use could help to fight global warming (EurActiv 09/06/09). 

As the EU prepares for a major revamp of its farm policy for the post-2013 era, the EU executive stresses that European farmers must slash agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% by 2020, primarily by producing biomass and storing carbon in the soil (EurActiv 16/09/09). The future CAP may well make support for farmers subject to delivering on biodiversity, sustainable farming practices and CO2 reduction goals (EurActiv 27/10/09).

EU member state Sweden is even developing standards to help consumers make conscious choices about the impact of their food purchase decisions on global warming (EurActiv 06/07/09). 

Food is strategic and agricultural production is a vital sector of many national economies. Yet, discussions are shifting from how to adapt farming to climate change to how to make agriculture contribute to climate change mitigation.  

In a recent interview with EurActiv, outgoing EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel even backed the possibility of an emissions trading scheme for agriculture. While the EU has reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from its farming sector by 21% compared to 1990, according to the European Commission, agricultural emissions from other parts of the world have soared by nearly 17%, mainly due to increases in developing countries.

Farmers in the developing world emit the most GHGs due to inefficient agricultural practices and poor natural resource management. Meanwhile, experts agree that climate change represents more of a challenge to food security in the developing world than elsewhere: a dilemma which underlines the need for urgent mitigation measures.

A recent FAO report on synergies between food security and agricultural mitigation in developing countries identifies improved management of cropland, water, pasture and grazing as well as restoration of degraded land as the main means of lowering emissions.

However, the main concern of the world's poorest and most chronically hungry is farming food in the first place, no matter how it is done and no matter what implications their pratices have for climate change. 

Therefore, if the international community wants to curb the 14% of global GHG emissions that come from agriculture - 74% of which come from developing countries - it needs to help the world's poorest people.  

Pledges made by world leaders at last week's world food security summit - and EU ministerial talks on linking development aid and the fight against climate change - offer the first signs of how the international community is planning to help developing countries to move towards sustainable agricultural development and food security.

Agriculture to drive economic development 

Moreover, many see agricultural development as a driver of economic growth in poor countries.

"With an agriculture-led economy in Africa, where over 80% of the work force is anchored on agriculture, it is logical that agricultural development rightly deserves all the attention it is currently receiving as the engine of our industrial revolution and economic growth," saidPdf external the permanent representative of the African Union in Brussels, Ambassador Mahamat Saleh Annadif. 

Annadif stressed that the situation calls for greater investment in agriculture in Africa and placing the agricultural sector "at the centre of the region's development agenda" if the UN Millenium Development Goals of halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 are to be realised. 

Financing green growth in the developing world 

Last week's summit pledgedPdf external to "enhance and develop financing mechanisms and other appropriate measures to support adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change that are accessible to smallholder farmers, and are based on equitable, transparent and effective institutional arrangements." 

The world leaders also said they would increase public investment and encourage private investment in "country developed plans for rural infrastructure and support services", including roads, storage, irrigation, communication infrastructure, education, technical support, health and research. 

According to the FAO, several options for financing mitigation actions are currently under negotiation, including public, public-private, and private sources of finance as well as carbon market mechanisms. The UN agency stresses that new funding mechanisms should provide incentives for the adoption of sustainable farming practices and technologies and "compensate governments and farmers for their contributions" to emissions reductions. 

This is exactly what is being planned in the EU with the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). While part of the direct payments would be kept, part of the EU aid to farmers would be subject to the delivery of 'public goods' on climate change mitigation (EurActiv 27/10/09).

EU development aid 

In a drive to make EU climate change and development policies more coherent, EU member states agreedPdf external  last week that the EU Commission and member states should integrate climate change concerns into their development strategies and budgets.  

EU ministers stressed that food security responses need to reflect long-term environmental sustainability through sustainable agriculture and "development assistance targeting adaptation efforts in the agriculture sector" will be decisive with this regard. 


Commission president José Manuel Barroso said on 16 November that "it goes without saying that we cannot solve food insecurity unless we tackle climate change successfully," hoping for "extra money to address food security problems" as a key outcome of next month's international climate talks in Copenhagen. Support for adaptation must be "focused on small holders in developing countries" who are hardest hit, he added, stressing the role of bio-diversity as an important part of the solution.

Alonzo Fulgham, acting administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) welcomedPdf external the FAO summit declaration, saying it represents "a global consensus on a new approach to alleviating hunger and under-nutrition by harnessing the tremendous potential of agriculture to drive economic growth". 

Last week, Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness called for EU policy makers to give particular recognition to the agricultural sector when it comes to discussions on climate change mitigation. She said one should carefully think "whether or not it is appropriate that agriculture be asked to make a contribution to climate change in the same manner as the transport sector".

"If hard choices are to be made, then hard questions must be asked about what we want for our farming and food sector. We cannot allow for a reduction in food production in the EU, simply to reduce emissions and transfer the production of that food and its linked emissions to elsewhere in the world," she said, adding that "food is strategic and for Ireland agriculture and food production are vital sectors of the economy." 

Agriculture is "the missing word" in the UN climate talks, said Gerald Nelson, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), adding that while the agricultural sector emits 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions, it also has a "unique role" in absorbing carbon emitted from other sectors. 

Therefore, "any funds set aside in the UN talks to help adaptation need to include agriculture," he said. "We need to think about new crop varieties, new physical infrastructure to make farming more resilient as well as new institutions both domestically and internationally that support resilience," said Nelson. 

According to IFPRI, agriculture can mitigate emissions through "changes in agricultural technologies and management practices," and new crop mixes that include more perennial plants or have deeper root systems. Such plants allow more carbon to be stored in the soil. Reduced tillage and changes in crop genetics, irrigation, fertiliser use, livestock species and feeding practices can also reduce emissions, the paper continues, asserting that changes to make the agricultural system more resilient to climate change will also increase carbon sequestration. 

As the total share of emissions from agriculture is larger in the developing world, "cost-effective ways must be found to help poor people" to both mitigate and adapt to climate change, underlined Nelson. IFPRI also calls for more investment and funding to support agricultural research, rural infrastructure, and access to markets for small farmers in developing countries.

Oxfam, the development NGO, calls for more investment in better policies, institutions, services and training to encourage sustainable farming adapted to local agro-ecological environments. The NGO denounces rich countries' push for more chemical fertilisers use and new technologies in Africa as it would only lead to "more environmental degradation".

"Smallholder farmers, mostly women, are on the frontline in the fight against world poverty, hunger and climate change and we must not continue to ignore them," said Oxfam spokesperson Frederic Mousseau.

Next steps:

  • 8-10 March 2010: High-level conferenceexternal on the development of agribusiness and agro-industries in Africa (Abuja, Nigeria). 


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