Agriculture and Climate Change, Revisited

Jan 20th, 2012 | By | Category: Adaptation, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Carbon, Ecosystem Functions, Global Warming, Green House Gas Emissions, Lessons, News, Research, Resilience

NewYork Times: Agriculture has long been a stepchild in global negotiations over the climate. Hopes had risen that this might change at the latest big global climate session, in Durban, South Africa, in December. It did not.

Now, a group of experts led by John Beddington, the chief science adviser of the British government, is issuing a call for renewed research and advocacy regarding the future of the world’s food system. The opinion piece, to be published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, highlights the potential role of scientists in making agriculture a higher global priority.

The article is a direct reaction to the failure of delegates in Durban to adopt a formal program on climate change and agriculture, an idea that has been on the table for several years and was promoted this year by Jacob Zuma, the South African president. The delegates, operating under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, did agree in principle to negotiate new, global limits on greenhouse gases by 2015.

But they declined to bring agriculture into the climate decision-making in a formal way, with objections coming from assorted countries for several reasons — including the sheer difficulty of monitoring greenhouse gas emissions on millions of farms.

This newspaper has previously outlined the risks to agriculture from climate change. One of those risks is the lack of serious new investment in helping farmers adapt to erratic weather and the other problems they face on a warming planet. Agriculture is already straining to keep up with demand, as reflected in today’s high commodity prices, and many experts believe the situation will probably worsen.

The converging problems were outlined in a major report issued last year by Dr. Beddington’s office. The gist of the findings was that agriculture is both a cause and a likely victim of climate change, and the world must somehow find ways to produce more food to feed a growing population while simultaneously reducing the greenhouse gases and other environmental damage from farming.

Ultimately, the authors of the Science piece would like to see agriculture become a formal part of the treaty negotiations, presumably with binding national goals on farm performance—and significant financial help for poor countries in meeting those goals. The Science piece calls for intermediate steps from the scientific community that could help lay the groundwork for such a program. The suggestions include development of new agricultural standards, a more direct linkage between saving forests and improving agriculture, and more rigorous assessment of which farming practices are truly “sustainable.”

One clear need is for research aimed at better quantifying the risks that farmers could face in coming decades. My piece last year mentioned such an effort, led by Cynthia Rosenzweig of NASA, who said recently that her program is moving forward.

In an interview, Molly Jahn, a plant breeder at the University of Wisconsin, said the research also needs to focus on ways to help the poorest people, who will not necessarily come out as winners if agricultural systems in developing countries become more sophisticated. Virtually everywhere it has happened, that transition has involved larger farms, more capital — and fewer farmers.

“I think our highest priority is to get agriculture into the conversation about climate change and adaptation,” said Dr. Jahn, one of the authors of the new article and a member of a commission on agriculture and climate. “Agriculture needs to be front and center, as an activity on which our lives very literally depend.”

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