Climate change and agriculture are deeply interconnected. Globally, the agricultural sector is responsible for approximately 21 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is also incredibly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as it is so dependent on temperature and precipitation patterns. While some regions may benefit from improved growing conditions, the negative effects worldwide are expected to far outweigh the positives. Global food security will be severely affected at a time when population is rapidly expanding.

On October 17, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released The State of Food and Agriculture in 2016, a 194-page report detailing the effects that climate and agriculture have on each other and the actions that need to be taken to protect food security. The report pays particular attention to smallholder farmers in the developing world, who will be disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change. “2016 should be about putting commitments into action,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “The benefits of adaptation outweigh the costs of inaction by very wide margins.”

Emissions from Agriculture

Agricultural sector greenhouse gas emissions include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide emissions come primarily from land use changes—cutting down trees, converting forests or grasslands to cropland, etc. However, the forestry and agriculture sector has the ability to sequester large amounts of carbon in trees, biomass, and soil. Unfortunately, deforestation currently is a major source of emissions. While there are some programs and policies in place to encourage reforestation and other carbon sequestration, more aggressive progress needs to be made for the agricultural sector to reach its sequestration potential.

Methane emissions can come from flooding lands to produce rice. Using more water-efficient methods can reduce methane emissions from rice production by up to 45 percent. Livestock are another large source of methane emissions. More sustainable livestock production practices can reduce methane emissions by 14 to 41 percent.

Nitrogen fertilizer is a big factor in nitrous oxide emissions. The FAO report states that 50 percent of world food production is dependent on nitrogen from fertilizer. However, the report also states that the costs of environmental damage due to nitrogen leaching are as high as the benefits we receive from using nitrogen fertilizer. Sustainable nitrogen management has the potential to substantially reduce nitrous oxide emissions. As nitrous oxide has a global warming potential 265 times that of carbon dioxide, this is a vital mitigation strategy to reduce agricultural emissions.

Making Agriculture More Resilient

FAO estimates there are around half a billion smallholder farmers in developing countries. These farmers are already vulnerable to food insecurity, and the impacts of climate change will only intensify that vulnerability. The FAO report identifies several key areas where these farmers’ livelihood resilience can be improved.

One strategy is diversification, both within and outside of the agricultural sector. By planting a wider variety of crops, or having both plants and livestock, smallholder farmers can more effectively manage climate risk. In addition, having a source of income outside of the agricultural sector can be a smart way to diversify, allowing smallholders more options in the event of negative climatic effects on yield.

Another strategy is to reduce gender inequality. Women often have different responsibilities and different levels of access to resources and information. If resilience strategies fail to take these differences into account, they may not successfully address the needs of the entire community. In the developing world, rural women represent 43 percent of agricultural work force, but don’t have equal access to land, services, income, or information. Because of these inequalities, women globally are less equipped to effectively adapt to climate change. By providing women with equal access to resources and decision-making power, the livelihoods of the community as a whole improve.

Policy Actions to Promote Sustainable, Resilient Agriculture

The FAO report states that addressing emissions from agriculture will be essential to meeting international climate agreements. To successfully reduce emissions to required levels, significant policy actions will need to be taken. This will include creating policies to incentivize sustainable agricultural production and revisiting policies that encourage unsustainable practices. For example, subsidies on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer have encouraged overuse, leading to excessive leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.

To effectively target agricultural emissions, policies will need to be better coordinated, both regionally and globally. These policies need to promote efficient resource management, improved production, household resilience, and efforts to decrease knowledge gaps. This will also require greater financing, as current international climate funds are not enough to allow developing countries to adequately prepare for the effects of climate change. Without rapid action, FAO estimates that by 2030, 122 million more people could be suffering extreme poverty.

Author: Rebecca Chillrud

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