April 18, 2014

How Can We Meet Global Food Needs while Lowering Emissions?

Jes Walton, EcoAgriculture Partners

When you hear “low emissions agriculture,” what comes to mind?

Before attending a discussion at the World Bank on Meeting Global Food Needs with Lower Emissions, I envisioned an emphasis on food miles and chemical fertilizer use. But, the recent IPCC assessment report suggests that it’s really all about soil management in agricultural landscapes and figuring out how to to reduce emissions from cows in the face of the world’s growing obsession with beef and dairy products.

Zebu Cattle in rural Ethiopia. Photo: Diana Prichard on Flickr

Climate change and agriculture research

The IPCC report confirms that the way we manage our landscapes is a big problem, with 25 percent of global greenhouse gasses (GHGs) coming from agriculture, forestry and similar land uses. Of this 25 percent, most emissions come from enteric fermentation—the release of methane and other GHGs from cattle. However, this sector is uniquely situated to be major part of the solution as well, if we can overcome the denial that the way we produce food (in many cases, beef specifically) has a major, unsustainable, ecological footprint.

Chuck Rice, an author of the IPCC report’s chapter on Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU), notes that potential advances on the supply side of agriculture—decisions made about the management of croplands, grasslands and rice paddies, for example—will have a major role in future climate change mitigation. Conservation agriculture, agroforestry and integrated systems of crops, rangelands and trees have the potential to reduce emissions, sequester carbon and maintain carbon-rich ecosystems, while also providing benefits to smallholder farmers at the local level.

A similar report, commissioned by the Climate and Land Use Alliance (expected release: April 24, 2014), was conducted simultaneously to the IPCC assessment and has largely the same findings. However, this report focuses on demand-side mitigation strategies—specifically encouraging low emission diets and reducing waste throughout the food chain, where around 30-40 percent of the world’s total food production is lost. Reducing the demand for beef would have major impacts on emissions, but this doesn’t mean everyone has to become vegan. Clearly, this approach has significant political and cultural barriers, but also the potential for creating positive changes for our atmosphere.

Emissions from the AFOLU sector—including those from livestock management—have increased over the last century, but we actually saw a decrease during the first decade of the 2000s, due largely to reforestation efforts. So, despite the IPCC’s gloomy forecast, there was a bit of hope in this room of practitioners, researchers and financiers. We are already seeing on the ground successes at these early stages of implementing climate smart agriculture and land use management and have many case studies to prove it.

The path to low emissions agriculture

Land managers in Costa Rica have benefitted from payment for environmental services in their diverse coffee landscape mosaics, and the government is actively exploring ways to implement similar incentives for decreasing emissions from livestock, an industry that covers one third of the country’s surface. In Ghana’s Juabeso-Bia landscape, smallholder cocoa farmers are increasing their yields and income by expanding high shade areas and conserving forests, while using the more efficient landscape-level carbon accounting to keep track. In São Félix do Xingu, Brazil, innovative governance, regulatory frameworks and financial incentives have helped communities manage cattle and grasslands more efficiently in this region once known for the highest rate of deforestation in the Amazon. Financial institutions are exploring the role of climate finance in the agricultural sector, and have already seen successes in obtaining carbon offset credits for agriculture by Kenya’s Vi Agroforestry and the role of business and Community Markets for Conservation in creating value added products that come from climate smart agricultural landscapes in Zambia.

While none of these approaches to low emissions agriculture are particularly groundbreaking, the prominent role of integrated approaches is a beacon of hope in the often bleak climate change discussion. Integration enters the discourse in the calls for crossing the public-private divide and bridging the gap between levels of governance and policy making. Research collaboration and pooling of resources to reduce duplicated efforts also calls for integration. To date, research has often been compartmentalized and focused on either increased production, resiliency or mitigation, when these need to be considered together (and, in fact, many climate smart agricultural practices can fill several of these roles). Additional cross-sectoral efforts that emphasize synergies with other stakeholders—health concerns and reduced demand of beef, for example—increase the momentum for climate smart agricultural policies and interventions.

Until recently, there was a great deal of skepticism about applying climate change mitigation techniques in the agricultural sector, because many worried that this approach would compete with food security efforts. However, many of the above cases show that it is possible to integrate adaptation and mitigation strategies while keeping the best interest of the farmer in the foreground.

While climate smart agriculture’s main goal is to feed the hungry and provide resilient livelihoods for smallholders, it runs the risk of being co-opted by claims that technological advances and intensified production are the only solutions. Rather than making small adjustments at the margins, we need to reform of the agricultural system itself and bring food security and land management systems together in a way that actually reduces our food system’s footprint and turns agriculture from a climate change problem into a climate change solution.

Please share other successful cases of climate smart agriculture that incorporate mitigation, adaptation and concerns of the farmer!

For links to videos of presentations at the Meeting Global Food Needs with Lower Emissions event, please click here.

Jes Walton is a member of EcoAgriculture Partners’ communications team. She has a dual masters in International Affairs, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from American University and the UN Mandated University for Peace and has worked extensively with agrarian communities in West Africa.
Photo: Diana Prichard on Flickr
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