Agriculture: A Climate Solution Still on the Sidelines

Until a Work Program on Agriculture is approved by the United Nations, it will become more difficult for farmers to continue to produce the food we need, and carbon emissions will continue to rise.
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With regard to agriculture, negotiators at the United Nations climate talks in Doha this week seem only able to agree on one thing: that agriculture is both a victim and a culprit of climate change.

This is despite the fact that there is growing consensus within the agricultural community itself on the next best steps on how agriculture can be incorporated more fundamentally can be incorporated in post-Kyoto policy development around climate change.

In fact, nineteen of the world's leading agricultural organisations recently endorsed a joint call-to-action to climate negotiators to empower one of their own internal bodies -- the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) -- to review proven techniques for agriculture to adapt to and mitigate climate change, and present this body of evidence to inform future decision-making.

As this year's climate negotiations come to a close, these leaders have failed, as in recent years past, to put in place any agreement for advancing agriculture's role in addressing climate change challenges.

Meanwhile, we in the agricultural sector keep asking ourselves: Why is such an obvious solution being delayed or avoided?

Greenhouses gases in the atmosphere continue to hit new unprecedented levels. Agriculture accounts for around 14 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and when combined with emissions related to deforestation (of which agriculture is one of the main drivers), the total rises to 31 percent. The sector offers one of the highest climate mitigation potentials, up to six billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year, with around 70 percent of this potential existing in low-income and middle-income countries. This total is more than the energy and transport sectors combined.

At the same time, the two billion-strong workforce of smallholder farmers around the world, who traditionally rely on predictable rainfall and temperatures to inform their yearly planting and harvests, are among the most vulnerable to a changing climate. Crop yields around the world are expected to decrease drastically by 2050, with Africa and South Asia most negatively impacted, losing 15 and 18 percent of productivity respectively. Unpredictable rainfall, shorter planting seasons, and more extreme events such as droughts and flooding will all push our food systems and the world's poorest farmers to the limit.

Not only is this detrimental to global efforts at increasing food security to feed a growing population, it is also likely to lead to increased emissions from agriculture. Crop yield improvements, when done sustainably, also reduce emissions. Since the 1960s increased yields have saved around 13 billion tonnes of emissions each year and have been estimated to reduce total historical emissions by around one-third.

A wealth of strategies to equip the world's farmers in the context of climate change already exist. For example, 300 million people in Africa, a continent that is increasingly suffering from drought, depend on maize as their major food crop. New varieties of maize that can grow in dry conditions are enabling farmers to grow food for their families despite inhospitable weather conditions. According to a recent report, genetically improved livestock in Pakistan and Afghanistan have shown up to 200 percent increases in meat and milk production.

Not only does this make sense for farmers in terms of food security, investing in agriculture makes good economic sense. It has been calculated that every one US dollar invested in anticipatory measures for climate change planning initiatives is estimated to save up to $7 dollars in future relief costs.

Inevitably, different solutions will be effective in different contexts, but if global leaders were to support and invest in proven agricultural techniques, they could not only better equip farmers to grow enough food for the future, but they could also enable them to make significant strides in combating climate change.

Until a Work Program on Agriculture is approved by the United Nations, it will become more difficult for farmers to continue to produce the food we need, and carbon emissions will continue to rise.

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