Climate change & Agriculture

Article - October 2009

Three activities – no-till agriculture, biochar and more intensified livestock farming with reduced methane emissions – are likely to benefit from increased funding because of their alleged role in combating global warming. What is the evidence that these activities can reduce greenhouse gas emissions? What will happen to the world’s biodiversity and the global climate if these sectors are hugely expanded? And who is likely to benefit?

Briefing - March 2006

UN COP-8 Briefing No. 2

Genetically engineered trees do not offer a solution to global warming, rather they are a global distraction from finding real solutions to the problems of global warming. In addition, they threaten the world’s forests through gene flow and other hazards. This is why people on all continents are raising the call for a global moratorium on the release of genetically modified trees into the environment.

Introduction

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