Climate change & Agriculture

Article - November 2015

This article gives a brief history of ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’, and shows how currently the term can equally be applied to both industrial monocultures and agroecology. The level of corporate interest is high, including Monsanto, Walmart, Danone, and the big fertiliser companies. France, a keen member of the Global Alliance for ‘Climate-Smart Agriculture’ (GACSA), and the host for December 2015 climate conference in Paris (COP21), has developed a proposal that risks defining the soil as a giant carbon sink to offset continued emissions.

Report - September 2013

In just 18 pages, Agropoly shows how a handful of companies have come to dominate the agro-industries for:

  • animal feed production: one third of agricultural land goes to produce animal feed;
  • livestock breeding: in chicken breeding, for example, the top 4 companies have 99% market share of the genetics;
  • seed production: the top 10 seed corporations have a 75% market share of the commercial market;
  • commodity production, processing, trade and retail: the revenues of the three biggest supermarket corporations are larger than the GNP of many states;
  • fertiliser and pesticide manufacture: the latter also controlled by seed corporations.
Opinion piece - February 2012

The World Bank is pushing hard to extend the life of carbon markets. It sees agriculture as an essential part of the strategy. That is just one reason why we should continue to oppose the inclusion of agriculture in the climate negotiations. For those who are accredited to the Climate Convention, the deadline to respond regarding a programme on agriculture is 5th March.
For all of us it's important to understand clearly what is behind all the talk of "climate-smart" agriculture and "sustainable intensification".

Commentary - December 2011

An agriculture work programme may sound attractive to those who are concerned about issues like:

  • Agriculture emissions increase climate change – and agriculture is profoundly affected by climate change
  • Agriculture has a severe impact on forests
  • Soils can store a great deal of carbon - but does that mean there should be a soil carbon market?

Others cite the need to support peasants, “smallholder farmers”, local production and food sovereignty. They want a programme of work on agriculture on condition that such issues are prioritised and that the programme addresses adaptation equally with mitigation.
Several Parties and international institutions advocate an agriculture work programme with the aim of using agriculture and soil carbon to offset emissions. The aim is to link agriculture and REDD+ under the title of climate-smart agriculture and apply the “integrated landscape approach”. This could lead to every aspect of agriculture, indeed the whole landscape, being measured in terms of carbon, even though there are serious scientific questions about the validity, let alone the possibility, of this approach.

Briefing - November 2010

In discussions about climate, market interests are of course focused on finance and how the market can participate. In this context, market interests include not just carbon markets, but also land and commodity markets, mining, timber and paper, that hope to profit from offsets. There is a real risk that their increased participation could give market mechanisms, traders and investors more power over development and also over land than developing countries and their peoples. Before they will commit, market players want incentives to invest, voluntary standards, enhanced returns, reduced risk and guarantees against failure to deliver. Private investors want to greatly expand the carbon markets, where money can be made in the short term, in order to attract traders. They hope to gain from multiple market devices linked to claimed carbon sequestration or emission reductions. This briefing raises some of the issues that must be considered, especially by developing countries and their peoples.

Briefing - November 2010 - Spanish

Carbon traders and high emitting Parties would like all land-use to count as carbon sinks to offset sources, delay reducing emissions and make money for carbon markets. There is more than one route to this goal: REDD++ could be one way, and CDM in LULUCF is another, as we shall see. Parties could also be enabled to use every current and future market-based mechanism to meet their reduction commitments. This briefing provides background to these key issues for Cancun.

Briefing - November 2010

Los comerciantes de carbono y los estados parte emisores de alto nivel, les gustaría que todos los usos del suelo fuesen fuentes de compensación, para retrazar y reducir las emisiones y de esa manera hacer dinero con los mercados de carbono. Hay más de una ruta a este objetivo: REDD + + podría ser una manera, y el MDL en el sector UTS es otro, como veremos más adelante. Los estados partes también puede ser habilitadas para usar todos los mecanismos actuales y futuras de mercado para cumplir con sus compromisos de reducción. Este informe proporciona antecedentes de estas cuestiones claves para Cancún.

Article - May 2010

Following Copenhagen the message is clear: if we do not act swiftly, industrial agriculture could soon claim large rewards from carbon trading by being recognized as a carbon sink. We know that climate change has the potential to irreversibly damage the natural resource base on which agriculture depends. But we also know that industrial agriculture is a major cause of climate change, so how can rewarding it with carbon credits help reduce its climate impacts?
The Land Magazine:

Report - December 2009

Few would deny that agriculture is especially severely affected by climate change and that the right practices contribute to mitigate it, yet expectations of the new climate agreement diverge sharply, as well as notions on what are good and what are bad agricultural practices and whether soil carbon sequestration should be part of carbon trading.

Briefing - December 2009

Including soil carbon sequestration in a Copenhagen agreement may provide opportunities for commercialization and profit, but should not be confused with proven strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilient food systems and empowering rural communities.


Biodiversity and Climate Change

Biodiversity helps to moderate the scale and impacts of climate change by making ecosystems, including agricultural systems, more resilient to change. However, if great changes occur too fast, then species will be unable to adapt and biodiversity become so depleted that ecosystems will not be able to maintain their resilience or function. This is equally true for agricultural biodiversity and agricultural systems.
If systems lack the capacity to endure or to adapt to change (resilience), those systems will be unable to adjust and could completely collapse.
If change occurs in a fluctuating or erratic manner, then a system will need time to build up the capacity to cope with such a range. For biological systems, ranging from the organism to the ecosystem, diversity is a key ingredient of the capacity to endure change (buffering) and the ability to respond and adapt. Uniformity, on the other hand, tends to make biological systems vulnerable to changes and stresses.
Such changes and stresses are currently occurring at an unprecedented rate in the form of climate change, overexploitation of resources, increasing fragmentation of habitat, loss of biodiversity and land being taken over for human use.

Agriculture and Climate Change

Whilst agriculture is obviously fundamental to human food security, the kind of agricultural practices we use are also critical to climate and biodiversity issues.
Depending on the agricultural practices used, agriculture can either contribute to climate change or it could help to increase resilience and even reduce both the vulnerability of ecosystems and the severity of climate fluctuations.

Industrial agriculture: a major climate change contributor

Industrial agriculture based on monocultures and applications of chemicals (fertilisers and pesticides) makes a major contribution to global emissions of green house gases (e.g. nitrous oxide derived from chemical fertiliser applications is 298 times stronger than CO2 and a major contributor to ozone depletion in the atmosphere). However, instead of changing the model and practices of agriculture and making commitments to real emission cuts in agriculture, political and industrial interest groups are proposing technological fixes. These are promoted despite lack of conclusive information as to their effectiveness or their risks and negative side effects. Examples within agriculture include:

  • removing carbon from the atmosphere by burying or storing it, for example through using biochar (charcoal produced by pyrolysis of biomass).
  • Chemical no-till agriculture (e.g. of genetically engineered soy beans) proposed as a carbon sink, and to offset CO2 emissions.

Many of these techno-fix proposals threaten biodiversity and food security, while it is unclear whether they can even fulfil their initial promises. Carbon offsets delay the emission cuts that we need to make as soon as possible.

Delays in reducing emissions will make agriculture everywhere more difficult and more prone to failures. Projections indicate that pests and diseases are likely to flourish with global warming, while projected advantages in some temperate zones could well be cancelled out by the effects of other changes, such as increased extremes of droughts, floods, storms and hurricanes. The IAASTD Report (2008) states clearly that climate change, if not addressed, will cause irreversible “damage to the natural resource base on which agriculture depends”. The Report also notes that “The earlier and stronger the cuts in emissions, the quicker concentrations [of greenhouse gases] will approach stabilization.” This means that avoiding cuts may earn short–term advantages for governments, but in the long term it is dangerously short sighted.

The political arena

EcoNexus follows the discussion from different angles: bringing insights about agriculture and land use change to public attention and to the meetings of both the UNFCCC and the CBD.
The report Real Problems, False Solutions is an example of this. Between June and November 2009, EcoNexus published two draft versions of the report following and responding to developments in the meetings leading up to the Climate Summit in Copenhagen.

January 2011