Agriculture: the missing word in the climate change conversation

In recent years, concern about global climate change has moved from the scientific community to the front pages of the major newspapers of the world. Groups around the world – from kitchen tables to community meetings to international NGOs – are calling for climate-friendly actions from governments and industries. Understanding the causes and consequences of climate change has changed over time, from an initial focus on the role of fossil fuels to a growing concern about the contributions of deforestation. What has been missing is agriculture.

As discussions get underway in advance of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings in Copenhagen this December, negotiators need to understand the critical linkages between agriculture and climate change and place agricultural adaptation and mitigation high on the agenda. Including both adaptation and mitigation funds for agriculture is essential to the success of a new global agreement.

What are the issues, what steps need to be taken, and what will they cost? Research at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is addressing these questions. A new brief by IFPRI offers a concise yet comprehensive look at the linkages between agriculture and climate change and other specific recommendations for moving forward.

Understanding Interactions between Climate Change and Agriculture

Climate change will have dramatic consequences for agriculture. Broad impacts are clear: some water supplies will become more variable, temperatures will increase, droughts and floods will stress agricultural systems, and food production will fall in some places. Developing economies and the poorest of the poor likely will be hardest hit, in part because they do not have the resources to cope with the changes. However, specific information about the location and severity of these changes remain uncertain. Understanding the relationship between climate change and agriculture is an essential first step towards enacting effective and efficient solutions. Increased funding for research is critical to better understand the interactions between climate change and agriculture and to provide geographically precise solutions to climate change threats.

Supporting Adaptation

A pro-growth, pro-poor development agenda that supports agricultural sustainability is the first step to climate change adaptation. Individuals with higher incomes and more resources can respond faster to changes. Thus, a policy environment that enhances opportunities for smallholder farmers will also be good for climate change adaptation. Such an environment would include more investment in agricultural research and extension, rural infrastructure, and access to markets for farmers. Funding should support these policy reforms.

Improvements in water productivity are critical. Climate change, by making rainfall more variable and changing its geographic distribution, will exacerbate the existing need for better water harvesting, storage, and management. Equally important is supporting innovative institutional mechanisms that give agricultural water users incentives to conserve.

Investments in rural infrastructure, both physical (such as roads, market buildings, and storage facilities) and institutional (such as extension programs, credit and input markets, and reduced barriers to internal trade) are needed to enhance the resilience of agriculture. The development of high-yielding drought- and pest-tolerant crops is needed for adaptation to new climatic conditions. Good data collection efforts are critical, especially high-resolution data that provide location-specific information. These data must be distributed freely and without restrictions.

Agriculture’s Role in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Mitigation

Today, agriculture contributes about 14 percent of annual GHG emissions, with land use change and forestry adding 19 percent.  The developing world accounts for about 50 percent of agricultural emissions and 80 percent of land use change and forestry emissions.

Agriculture has huge potential to cost-effectively mitigate both its own emissions and those from other sectors. Changing crop mixes to include more plants that are perennial or have deep root systems increases the amount of carbon stored in the soil. Cultivation systems that leave residues and reduce tillage, especially deep tillage, encourage the buildup of soil carbon. Shifting land use from annual crops to perennial crops, pasture, and agroforestry increases both above- and below-ground carbon stocks. Changes in crop and livestock genetics and the management of irrigation, fertilizer use, and soils can reduce both nitrous oxide and methane emissions. Innovative payment mechanisms and novel institutions can support agricultural mitigation, including land retirement contracts, one-time payments for long-term physical infrastructure investments, and payments for institutional innovations that encourage mitigating behavior in common property resources. All of these methods should be Measurable, Reportable, and Verifiable (MRV).

Enhancing Synergies between Adaptation and Mitigation

Many changes to management systems that make them more resilient to climate change also increase carbon sequestration. Conservation tillage increases soil water retention in the face of drought while also sequestering carbon below ground. Small-scale irrigation facilities not only conserve water in the face of greater variability, but also increase crop productivity and soil carbon. Agroforestry systems increase above- and below-ground carbon storage while also increasing water storage below ground, even in the face of extreme climate events. These synergies should receive explicit support in the final Copenhagen agreement.

The challenge of feeding an additional 3 billion people by 2050 while preserving our natural resources will be enormously complicated by climate change.  Recognizing the interactions between climate and agriculture is a key part of sustainable development and achieving food security. Supporting agricultural adaptation and mitigation efforts should be key outcomes of the Copenhagen negotiations.

Gerald C. Nelson is a senior research fellow in the Environment and Production Technology Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, DC.

Editor's Note: A story provided by the International Food Policy Research Institute. IFPRI climate change research is available here.