Climate negotiators should be sure to include agriculture and farmers in any successor to the UN Kyoto Protocol, Food and Agriculture Organization assistant director general Alexander Mueller urged during the latest round of negotiations in Bonn last week. Doing so would set the wheels in motion towards establishing international mechanisms and organizations that could tackle growing concerns and threats posed by climate change, food security, environmental degradation and poverty, he said.
"While agriculture is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, farmers and their families, particularly in poor countries, will also become victims of climate change. It will worsen their living conditions and hunger and malnutrition will increase. Rural communities dependent on agriculture in a fragile environment will face an immediate risk of increased crop failure and loss of livestock. Mostly at risk are people living along coasts, in floodplains, mountains, drylands, and the Arctic.
"That is why agriculture needs to be put on the agenda of global climate change negotiations. Existing financing mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol allow only a very small fraction of the mitigation potential of agriculture to be realized and are therefore not sufficient," Mueller stated in a media release.
*Photo credit: FAO/Giuseppe Bizarri
An Opportunity to Address Climate Change, Environmental Degradation, Food Security & Poverty
Agriculture accounts for about 14% percent of greenhouse gas emissions while land use changes such as deforestation make up another 17%, according to the FAO.
Crop production, especially when it's heavily reliant on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers, makes farming an increasingly energy intensive undertaking that results in large amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gas emissions and run-off that worsen air, water and soil quality, including the loss of soil organic carbon. It also leads to deforestation. All of these factors reinforce and contribute to one another and result in a long-term negative feedback cycle.
Moreover, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and pollution and deforestation is expected to increase along with increasing world population, the majority in poorer, underdeveloped countries already increasingly at risk from climate change.
That need not be the case, Mueller said. "Millions of farmers around the globe could also become agents of change helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By keeping higher levels of carbon in the soil - a process known as 'carbon sequestration' - farmers can help reduce carbon dioxide levels in the air, enhance the soil's resilience and boost crop yields.
Making use of well-known, often more traditional and less energy-intensive farming methods practices, such as reduced tillage, mixed cropping, crop rotation, addition of trees and altering forage, can have a large impact, not only in terms of mitigating and adapting to climate change, but better assuring adequate food supplies and alleviating poverty, the FAO noted.
A Hugely Ambitious, But Worthy, Task
Incorporating agriculture into a global climate change pact would be a hugely ambitious undertaking that poses numerous challenges, however. Scientists and researchers have pointed out the relative dearth of government and private sector support for agricultural research that's going to necessary to accurately and comprehensively measure emissions from soil, croplands and livestock, as well as get a better handle on the chemical and nutrient cycles involved.
Setting up an effective and efficient organizational framework, from local on up through the global level, is another huge challenge, particularly as there are so many relatively small-scale farms and farmers around the world, many of them with little formal education and relatively little in the way of support from government or research institutions.
The current international organizational framework and financial resources aren't up to the task at prsent, according to Mueller.
“Current global funding arrangements, like the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, are inadequate and are not offering sufficient incentives for farmers to get involved in climate change mitigation and adaptation," he stated.
"For example, soil carbon sequestration, through which nearly 90 percent of agriculture's climate change mitigation potential could be realized, is outside the scope of the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol. Neither climate change mitigation, nor food security, nor sustainable development, benefit from this exclusion," Mueller added.
It seems clear that UN climate change accord representatives would have to work closely with and leverage whatever organizations and resources devoted to agriculture are already available in their home countries, as well as establish new mechanisms and an organizational framework at the highest level to monitor and keep track of all that goes on, as well as provide a transparent conduit for the dissemination and exchange of information.
The FAO seems tailor-made as a point agency for the undertaking and give it an opportunity to address longstanding criticisms regarding the effectiveness and integrity of UN programs.
"Massive investments in agriculture are required to change unsustainable production methods, to train farmers in climate change mitigation practices and to improve overall access to credit and information," Mueller said. "These investments will make agriculture more resilient to climate change and at the same time will improve agricultural productivity and sustainability, thus contributing to better food security and poverty reduction."