How does agriculture contribute to climate change?

Modern agriculture, food production and distribution are major contributors of greenhouse gases: Agriculture is directly responsible for 14 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and broader rural land use decisions have an even larger impact. Deforestation currently accounts for an additional 18 per cent of emissions.

In this context, a historical perspective needs to be considered: Dr. Rattan Lal, Professor of Soil Science at Ohio State University, has calculated that over the last 150 years, 476 billions of tonnes of carbon has been emitted from farmland soils due to inappropriate farming and grazing practices, compared with ‘only’ 270 Gt emitted from of burning of fossil fuels. A more frequently quoted figure is that 200 to 250 Gt of carbon have been lost from the biosphere as a whole in the last 300 years. Whatever the correct figure, these reductions of ‘living carbon potential’ have resulted from

  • deforestation
  • biodiversity loss
  • accelerated soil erosion
  • loss of soil organic matter
  • salinisation of soils
  • costal water pollution and
  • acidification of the oceans

Land use changes can also significantly contribute to climate change. Large scale changes such as deforestation, soil erosion or machine-intensive farming methods may all contribute to increased carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. Soil erosion by water, wind and tillage affects both agriculture and the natural environment. Soil loss, and its associated impacts, is one of the most important (yet probably the least well-known) of today’s environmental problems.

The contribution of farm animals to global greenhouse gas emissions is quite significant:

methane_emissions_01

Support for local food

The issue of local food is one of the most commonly and enthusiastically embraced of all the issues around localisation. A particular challenge is the issue of food sovereignty for urban areas, given that by 2030 an estimated 60 percent of all people will live in cities (FAO, 2009). From British allotment gardening, to community supported agriculture, to Cuban urban agriculture, to Japanese rooftop gardens – there are more and more examples of intra-urban and peri-urban areas being transformed into productive food-growing land.

Producing food locally, even in an urban environment means short transport routes, less processing and packaging. In the U.S., these parts of the value chain consume more than a third of all energy used for food production. Limiting these activities can substantially reduce the carbon footprint of each meal. In addition, urban food policies encourage consumption of nutritious food, provide food security and sovereignty. Members of the community can be become involved. Jobs and occupation, and income opportunities are created. Local agriculture projects create solidarity and purpose among the communities, sustaining morale and help building community pride.

To set up an urban agriculture programme, a framework of policies is needed. First, people should be enabled to gain access and usufruct ownership of land to be used for agriculture purposes. Depending on the social structures of the region, land should be leased for free or for a low rent. The lease of land must be organised and monitored by the municipal government, encouraging a wide range of fruits, vegetables and spices to be cultivated in the area. The gardeners and farmers can work on their own or establish production cooperatives. In addition, gardeners and farmers can be organized in loose associations to facilitate the dissemination of information and technical knowledge among themselves, and to exchange seeds and to share tools..

Government should set up information centers. These could sell agricultural supplies to the public that would otherwise be difficult to obtain, such as vegetable and medicinal seeds and seedlings, biological pesticides, organic fertilizer and tools. For sale of the produce, spaces at farmer markets should be provided for subsidised rent. If necessary, municipalities have to organise markets or other sale opportunities. Also, on-site sale should be encouraged. Finally, it must be ensured that produce is sold at prices that are affordable to the local community. This could be made a condition for accepting a farmer to participate in an urban agriculture programme. Helpful assistance can be provided by NGOs, and organizations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which supports urban agriculture in its ‘Food in the City’ programme.

Case study: Cuba

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reduction of its imports of machines, food, and fertilizers in 1989, Cuba was forced to move towards food self-sufficiency. When food shortages due to the lack of fuel for tractors and lorries caused serious food supply problems, the government decided to encourage people to practice agriculture within Cuba’s cities. Soon gardens sprouted up everywhere – at housing estates, schools, community centres, hospitals and factories.

Cuba’s urban agriculture program aims to provide each person with at least 300 grams of fresh vegetables per day. By 2002, over 35,000 hectares of urban land were used for the intensive production of fruits, vegetables and spices. 117,000 people working in Cuba’s urban gardens produce over half the country’s vegetables, fruit, chickens and rabbits with zero transportation costs. The main source of compost is bagasse trucked in from Cuba’s sugar cane fields as an organic growing medium.

Cuba’s urban agriculture program provides good quality seeds, advice on composting, crop rotations earthworms, and on dealing with bacterial and fungal diseases without relying on chemical pesticides. Cuba’s food policies have been developed out of necessity but they are highly relevant for a world faced with the need to assure food security for all in an age of climate change.

Policy Concepts: How to mitigate climate change in the agriculture and food sector

Agriculture can play an important role as a carbon sink, storing carbon in the soil and in plant matter, and by efficiently managing the world’s resources of water, land and biodiversity. Until now, the main thrust to manage greenhouse gases by land use has been to increase CO2 sequestration by trees, plants and crops. But there is also considerable potential for sequestering carbon below ground in soils, deposited as dead plant material or in inorganic forms. The 4th IPCC Assessment Report found that 89 per cent of agriculture’s technical mitigation potential lies in enhancing soil carbon sinks through better crop- and grazing land management, increase of organic matter in degraded soils, and by use of carbon-neutral bio-energy. To make best use of this potential the WFC proposes to support organic farming solutions.

In addition to measures for enriching farmland and pastures with ‘conventional’ organic matter, a potentially important additional option is available in the form of ‘biochar’. As shown, packaging and transportation is responsible for more than one fifth of carbon emissions in  the food sector. A large share of these emissions could be avoided with local food. Moreover, localisation of the food industry creates local jobs and business opportunities. Hence the WFC presents policy concepts to  support locally produced food through labelling or state donations. Under the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ (CDM), developing countries could participate in global agreements and access needed funds to introduce less harmful technologies into their economic development. The successor to Kyoto should extend CDM to bio-sequestration projects. Increasing soil carbon should become central to future land use policies. To find out more about low-carbon agriculture and food policy concepts go to

Recent political momentum

The vision for a nuclear weapon-free world has recently been advanced by leaders and high-level officials (current and former) of key States, including those possessing nuclear weapons or covered by nuclear deterrence doctrines. The goal has been supported by legislators, high-ranking military officials, academics, disarmament experts and other segments of civil society.

This recent flurry of support was kicked off by a 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed by former US high-level officials George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn. In it these eminent statesmen—who had done much to foster a nuclearized world—recognized the need to abandon nuclear weapons. They were joined by their counterparts from countries across the globe. In the process they have revitalized the drive to abolish nuclear weapons.

The nuclear disarmament issue was then put squarely on the world’s community agenda by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who in October 2008 put forward his five-point proposal for nuclear disarmament, which proposes, inter alia, the consideration of negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention or a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments. The UN Secretary-General’s proposal has earned support in forums of every kind and at every level. It was also referenced in the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

On December 9, 2008, a high-level group of 129 political, military, business, faith and civic leaders from around the world launched Global Zero—an international campaign to build public awareness and political support for achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. A year earlier, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was launched with the purpose of galvanizing public and government support for multilateral negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

In addition, several eminent commissions, including the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction (chaired by Dr. Hans Blix) and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (chaired by Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi), have proposed plans containing practical ideas to bring the vision of global zero closer to reality. Although such proposals may offer different approaches to nuclear disarmament (comprehensive versus incremental—and everything in between), they generally agree that achieving nuclear proliferation and disarmament—recognized as mutually reinforcing and inseparable objectives—will come as a result of a concerted effort.

These developments also set the stage for US President Barack Obama to put forward in his speech in Prague in April 2009 the vision of a nuclear weapon-free world, which has since been supported by numerous other Heads of State. A year later, the US and Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which requires both Washington and Moscow to reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads from around 2,200 to no more than 1,550 in seven years. The arms control agreement was ratified by both countries’ parliaments in February 2011.

In 2010 the States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) further strengthened this newfound disarmament vigour by including the following provision in the action plan on nuclear disarmament:

“The Conference calls on all nuclear-weapon states to undertake concrete disarmament efforts and affirms that all States need to make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons. The Conference notes the five-point proposal for nuclear disarmament of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, which proposes, inter alia, consideration of negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention or agreement on a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments, backed by a strong system of verification.”

As such, the international community has recognized that a focus solely on the next non-proliferation and disarmament steps is no longer sufficient or able to succeed. A comprehensive approach to nuclear disarmament must be developed alongside and complementary to the step-by-step process.

In addition, the myth that possession of nuclear weapons provides strategic advantages, and thus security, is losing its hold on security thinking; at least within certain nuclear weapons states. It has led NATO-members Norway, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to call upon the US to remove the American nuclear warheads that these nations have long been hosting.

Nuclear disarmament is again gaining momentum! ‘No international obligation has greater urgency than the obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons’, says WFC Councillor Judge C.G. Weeramantry. Not living up to this responsibility would be ‘a betrayal of all the values we cherish and of everything human civilisation has built up through millennia of effort and sacrifice.’

It is up to us to build on this renewed momentum and capitalize on the current political will to ensure that these developments culminate in states taking tangible steps towards banning and eliminating nuclear arms.