Agriculture has big role to play in curbing greenhouse gas emissions

Rapid action needed to put smallholders and food systems on sustainable paths

A farmer in Tanzania uses hay to help mulch and prevent soil erosion.

The pledge to eradicate hunger and poverty must go hand in hand with rapid transformations of farming and food systems to cope with a warmer world, FAO said today in a new report.

Agriculture, including forestry, fisheries and livestock production, generate around a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture must both contribute more to combating climate change while bracing to overcome its impacts, according to The State of Food and Agriculture 2016.

“There is no doubt climate change affects food security,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said while presenting the report. “What climate change does is to bring back uncertainties from the time we were all hunter gatherers. We cannot assure any more that we will have the harvest we have planted.”

That uncertainty also translates into volatile food prices, he noted. “Everybody is paying for that, not only those suffering from droughts,” Graziano da Silva said.

FAO warns that a “business as usual” approach could put millions more people at risk of hunger compared to a future without climate change. Most affected would be populations in poor areas in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, especially those who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Future food security in many countries will worsen if no action is taken today.

Overhauling farming and food systems will be complex due to the vast number of stakeholders involved, the multiplicity of farming and food processing systems, and differences in ecosystems. Yet, efforts must begin in earnest now as the adverse impacts of climate change will only worsen with time, the report emphasizes.

“The benefits of adaptation outweigh the costs of inaction by very wide margins,” emphasized Graziano da Silva.

Time for commitments to be put into action

“2016 should be about putting commitments into action,” urged Graziano da Silva, noting the international community last year agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement, about to come into force. Agriculture will be high on the agenda at the 22nd Conference of the Parties in Morocco starting November 7.

The FAO report underscores that success in transforming food and agriculture systems will largely depend on urgently supporting smallholders in adapting to climate change.

Developing countries are home to around half a billion smallholder farm families who produce food and other agricultural products in greatly varying agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions. Solutions have to be tailored to those conditions; there is no one-size-fits-all fix.

The FAO report describes alternative, economically viable ways of helping smallholders to adapt and making the livelihoods of rural populations — often the most exposed to the downside risks of climate change – more resilient.

The report provides evidence that adoption of ‘climate-smart’ practices, such as the use of nitrogen-efficient and heat-tolerant crop varieties, zero-tillage and integrated soil fertility management would boost productivity and farmers’ incomes. Widespread adoption of nitrogen-efficient practices alone would reduce the number of people at risk of undernourishment by more than 100 million, the report estimates.

It also identifies avenues to lower emission intensity from agriculture. Water-conserving alternatives to the flooding of rice paddies for example, can slash methane emissions by 45 percent, while emissions from the livestock sector can be reduced by up to 41 percent through the adoption of more efficient practices.

FAO’s road map also identifies policies and financing opportunities for the sustainable intensification of agriculture.

The way forward

Negative global effects of climate change are already being felt in some cereal crop yields,. Climate change will likely lead to a loss of nutritional content of some foods, such as declining zinc, iron and protein counts in staple cereals, and trigger new health issues — including diarrhoea for humans and an array of transboundary animal diseases.

Beyond 2030, according to scientific evidence, negative pressures on food production will be increasingly felt everywhere. Until then, adverse impacts of higher temperatures are sharply skewed towards developing countries, pointing to dimmer prospects for their food self-sufficiency.

Helping smallholders adapt to climate change risks is critical for global poverty reduction and food security. Close attention should be paid to removing obstacles they may face and fostering an enabling environment for individual, joint and collective action, according to the report.

FAO urges policy makers to identify and remove such barriers. These obstacles can include input subsidies that promote unsustainable farming practices, poorly aligned incentives and inadequate access to markets, credit, extension services and social protection programmes, and often disadvantage women, who make up to 43 percent of the agricultural labour force.

The report stresses that more climate finance is needed to fund developing countries’ actions on climate change. International public finance for climate change adaptation and mitigation is growing and, while still relatively small, can act as a catalyst to leverage larger flows of public and private investments. More climate finance needs to flow to sustainable agriculture, fisheries and forestry to fund the large-scale transformation and the development of climate-smart food production systems. Adaptation and mitigation of climate change must occur in tandem.

Without action, agriculture will continue to be a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. But by adopting climate-smart practices and increasing the capacity of soils and forests to sequester carbon, emissions can be reduced while stepping up food production to feed the world’s growing population, the report said. Food systems can further contribute by minimizing food losses and waste, as well as by promoting healthier diets that also leave a lighter environmental footprint.


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FAO, press release, 2016-10-17.


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)


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