Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Agriculture: Agriculture in a changing environment

Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN. Cows release huge amounts of warming methane every year

Source: IRIN

JOHANNESBURG, 24 January 2012 (IRIN) - Agriculture has been seen either as a cause or victim of global warming at the UN climate change talks over the past few years - something that has thwarted efforts to attract the investment it needs, say scientists.

Some at the talks see a more dominant role for agriculture - an emitter of major greenhouses gases such as nitrous oxide and methane - in reducing global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates agricultural emissions account for 13.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, poor countries want more money and better technology to help farmers adapt to the impact of climate change such as frequent droughts, flooding and increased salinity.

“It is really a bad split for agriculture,” said John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, and one of the authors of a paper calling for a more integrated approach, combining mitigation and adaptation efforts.

The paper, published in the current edition of Science with contributions from several scientists, calls for a better understanding of agricultural practices with the aim of delivering multiple benefits - reducing emissions, helping agriculture to adapt, and using limited resources (like water) efficiently.

One model to emulate could be Denmark, where one of the world’s strictest agriculture control systems is in place - including, for example, the use of environmentally friendly practices such as substituting pig slurry (pig waste and water) for artificial fertilizers. The country has managed not only to reduce emissions from agriculture by 28 percent but also increase productivity.

This kind of win-win agriculture would attract more funding from a wider range of sources, said Beddington.

Climate change’s impact is likely to be greatest in low and middle-income tropical regions, where pressure will mount to produce more food because of population and income growth, says agricultural economist Christopher Barrett, who teaches at Cornell University. The global focus, therefore, has to be on helping agriculture in those regions adapt, and not just produce more or reduce emissions. “And that agenda needs to encompass post-harvest storage, distribution and transformation.”

Despite growing support for an integrated approach to agriculture encompassing adaptation and mitigation efforts, policy actions have been slow to materialize in most countries and at the UN climate change talks, the paper says.

A first step, say the scientists, is to get commonly agreed definitions of concepts like “climate-smart agriculture” and “sustainable intensification”, which integrate the two approaches.

The authors of the paper include ecologist Bob Scholes of South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; Mohammad Asaduzzaman, research director of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies; and Judi Wakhungu, executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Kenya.


The “climate-smart” concept as developed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) advocates practices which generate both adaptation and mitigation benefits such as the efficient use of organic fertilizers; the development of efficient seed systems which produce crops naturally resilient to climatic shifts; the harvesting of water for irrigation; the production of biogas from livestock manure; and greater reliance on forage from maize crops to feed animals.

Such initiatives would not only improve food production but also reduce harmful gas emissions, says FAO.

About 70 percent of agriculture-related emissions are associated with the manufacture and use of nitrogen-based fertilizers -in large part through the emission of nitrous oxide - according to a 2011 review by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The livestock sector generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide. Most of this comes from manure.

Belching cows, goats and sheep emit 80 million tons of methane into the atmosphere every year. Though methane remains in the atmosphere for a short time (9-15 years), it has 23 times the GWP of carbon dioxide. Irrigated rice farming is another major source of methane emissions.

Soil carbon sequestration

But the “climate-smart” concept was given another interpretation at the Durban climate change talks in December: The World Bank announced it had launched a “climate-smart agriculture” pilot project in Kenya. The project (which is still running) aims to get small farmers to adopt agricultural practices such as low-tillage, which trap carbon in the soil in such a way that it is not re-emitted into the atmosphere (soil carbon sequestration). The carbon is then sold as credits in carbon markets.

Think-tanks like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), and scientists at BBSRC, point out that sustainable agriculture can increase the sequestration of carbon in the soil but it is difficult and costly to measure.

IATP’s senior policy analyst, Steve Suppan, said the very high transaction costs of converting Kenyan farmers’ work into carbon credits would be better spent on more rapidly adapting Kenya’s agriculture to climate change.

“Because the project's transaction costs are nearly half of the project budget, the main project co-benefit is not for the farmers but for the carbon accounting methodology that the Bank wishes to sell globally.”

Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, Africa’s chief negotiator at the climate talks, who had been lobbying for a stronger presence for agriculture in the adaptation track, said they wanted predictable funds for agriculture, and not from shaky carbon markets, which in this case - for credits based on soil carbon sequestration - did not exist. “Our farmers will also be told to grow certain crops which sequester more carbon rather than what the farmers need, compromising their security.”

NGOs like ActionAid warn of the possibility of “soil grabs” in developing countries by big business to offset their emissions. Mitigation cannot be the predominant objective of any project aimed at benefiting agriculture, said ActionAid’s Harjeet Singh.

“Mitigation projects in agriculture need to begin in industrialized agriculture and land-clearing for agribusiness. The agro-ecological techniques of climate-smart agriculture should be deployed for adaptation, not in the service of carbon derivatives markets,” said Suppan.

Beddington said linking “climate smart agricultural practices” with carbon markets was “unfortunate”. The Science paper he co-authored calls for unpacking the term in such a way that addresses concerns that it might be giving more weight to agriculture’s role in reducing emissions, rather than focusing on improving production and ways to adapt.

Leslie Lipper, a senior environmental economist with FAO, said soil carbon sequestration is one example of an integrated approach but she was not against sourcing finance from carbon markets. “Identifying, crediting and financing mitigation co-benefits that can be generated from improving agricultural systems offers the potential to open a new and additional source of finance to help meet the investment gap” in agriculture.

“Sustainable intensification”

In agriculture, the term “sustainable intensification” as defined by FAO, refers to an increase in production either by using more inputs such as labour, land, time , fertilizer, feed or cash; or the maintenance of production at a certain level with the effective use of smaller amounts of fertilizer, or mixed cropping in smaller fields.

“Sustainable intensification”, said Scholes, focused more on increasing production not by physical expansion but the efficient use of inputs.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has called for views on agriculture within the climate change context to be submitted to its Subsidiary Body for Science and Technological Advice by 5 March 2012.