Guest Article #77

Now is the Time to Make Agriculture Part of the Climate Change Solution

At the May Bonn Climate Change Talks, international climate change negotiators have the opportunity to address a critical issue that has had a very low profile in the formal UNFCCC agenda: agriculture. As large-scale hunger stalks many parts of the globe, areas that rely primarily on agriculture for their economic and food security, such as South Asia, are facing an uncertain future climate that may put them further at risk. The opportunity for international policy action is timely, but it must be done right.

The actual work of increasing resilience to weather extremes and reducing net greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture will be done by millions of farmers around the world. Sustainable intensification of agriculture can increase food production per hectare, while maintaining environmental services including climate regulation. Food producers will make use of proven practices and technologies if incentives (e.g., increased yields, financial rewards) and resources (e.g., knowledge, financing for capital investments, insurance) are in place.

It is the job of policy makers to shape the incentives and ‘rules of the game' that will make those achievements possible. There is much greater potential for “upscaling” sustainability practices and technologies if a coherent global policy approach is agreed. Otherwise, implementation will be piecemeal and largely dependent on unilateral investments by national governments, philanthropic organizations and agribusinesses whose specific interests may not always coincide with the interests and needs of the general public.

Progress on agriculture and food security can and should be pursued in major international policy venues such as the G20 and the Rio+20 Earth Summit and through national and sectoral initiatives. But the UNFCCC is the only global venue for an integrated policy response to climate change – and the complex interactions of climate change with sustainable agriculture and food security challenges demand more than unilateral, single-sector responses.

In a recent report by the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, my colleagues and I delineated the seven most important policy actions for achieving food security in the context of climate change. Given agriculture's potential to deliver a broad suite of climate-related benefits, it is not surprising that one of our first recommendations called for UNFCCC negotiators to establish a work programme on adaptation and mitigation in agriculture within the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA).

At COP 17 in Durban, negotiators created room for considering agriculture as part of a framework for sectoral actions and empowered SBSTA to “exchange views on agriculture.” In order for countries to commit financial resources and develop rules, UNFCCC negotiators need robust evaluation of the potential and cost-effectiveness of agricultural mitigation strategies that include critical co-benefits for adaptation, livelihoods and food security. Agricultural mitigation strategies must ensure proper incentives for marginal and small farmers, and must not compromise food security and affordable prices for consumers.

Establishment of a SBSTA work programme would create a structured process for exploring critical technical issues and forecasting outcomes under a broad range of potential mechanisms. Top priority should be given to assessing the vulnerability of agricultural systems and the knowledge, capacity and available technology for adaptation and mitigation. Characterizing the knowledge base for different regions, production systems and crop types is of particular importance.

We can stimulate R&D and implementation on the ground through broad agreement on agricultural practices that would be eligible for incentives under a global financing mechanism. As UNFCCC negotiators craft the details of the REDD+ mechanism, they should carefully consider the full range of adaptation and mitigation strategies that can be applied in interconnected forested and agricultural landscapes and improve food security and livelihoods.

The Commission also highlighted the opportunity for negotiators to integrate sustainable agriculture in Fast Start funding and other mechanisms under the UNFCCC. These funds could improve climate resilience, food security and environmental co-benefits by supporting investments for sustained increase in soil and land productivity and critical infrastructure projects, particularly those for appropriate water management.

Of course, the real goal is to achieve a credible commitment by countries to drastically reduce their emissions. Such action would catalyse innovation across the national and international public research systems and the private sector – including agribusinesses and large- and small-scale farmers – to develop, transfer and use sustainable technologies for agriculture. Exclusion of agriculture from global climate policy would be a serious omission and a missed opportunity for increasing the resilience of the food system while reducing its climate footprint. We cannot risk putting humanity in further peril, and we must embrace the task ahead.