World can reduce global emissions from agriculture

Monday, December 05, 2011 • Thomas Ekelund


The study presented in Durban demonstrates that methods to reduce greenhouse gases could increase productivity and food security. Golbo, Tisabalima, Ethiopia, June 2010. Photo: ACT Alliance/Ikon/Church of Sweden/Anna Jonasson

The very means of producing life-sustaining food can contribute to deadly greenhouse gas emissions and thereby to climate change. But a great, untapped potential exists to reduce those emissions coming from agriculture.

A new study, Mitigating Greenhouse Gases in Agriculture, published and supported by ACT Alliance to coincide with the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, points to a number of underused methods that could make the agricultural sector more environmentally friendly. And at the same time, methods that reduce greenhouse gases could actually increase productivity and food security.

According to the study, agriculture directly contributes about 10-15% to global greenhouse gas emissions, and twice that much if indirect emissions from deforestation, fossil fuels and meat production are included. This makes agriculture the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after fossil energy use. Gunnel Axelsson Nycander is a policy advisor for climate change and food security at ACT member the Church of Sweden, and one of the study's authors.

“In climate policy, agriculture has played a minor role, and negotiations have started only recently. In agricultural policy, climate change mitigation currently plays an insignificant role.”

Taking examples from Europe, Brazil and Indonesia, the study pinpoints agriculture as a potential global emissions giant. Without effective mitigation actions, agriculture will be the single largest emitter within decades. While the study does not focus on how agriculture is affected by climate change, or how agriculture can be adapted, it does highlight some important synergies between mitigation and adaptation.

Gases from livestock, crops and land use change

The maths are fairly simple. Cultivating crops and keeping livestock leads to the release of greenhouse gases. The most important sources of direct emissions are methane from animals and nitrous oxide from fertilised soils. To Axelsson Nycander, this is an important reminder.

“It’s not only fossil fuels from the energy, transport, industry and housing sectors that contribute to greenhouse gases, but a wide range of actions and methods in current agriculture. And therefore a lot can be done.”

The study suggests three overall strategies to reduce emissions, two of which have to do with agricultural practices.

But are impoverished peasants in the global south up for mitigation? Axelsson Nycander argues that even though the main responsibility for mitigation, especially financially, lies in the global north, various kinds of agriculture across regions contribute to climate change in different ways. Eventually everyone will have to contribute to mitigation. For poor farmers, adaptation must be the first priority. Helping soil preserve carbon by increasing its organic matter content and conserving nutrients are not simply important ways to mitigate emissions. They also increase the soil’s fertility and water-holding capacity, thereby enhancing productivity and food security.

“These are extremely satisfying results since we as NGOs have promoted for a long time the very same strategies as part of sustainable agricultural practices that we think will improve food security, livelihood and environmental sustainability, while minimising the dependence on external inputs.”

Change consumption and waste patterns

But Axelsson Nycander finds the third strategy proposed in the study the most interesting, since it concerns actions to be taken outside the agricultural scene – and the concern of all people. More climate friendly food consumption and waste reduction can make a huge difference. More seasonal and vegetarian diets will reduce the number of livestock used and thereby decrease emissions from agriculture, Nycander says. In addition, post-harvest losses must be reduced, as well as waste in the whole food system.

“If you consider that methane emissions from grazing animals account for 32% of agricultural direct emissions, and that meat production also leads to high emissions from changing land use practises, I think you could say that reducing consumption of meat and milk products is an extremely important measure."

And, she says, ACT Alliance is important when it comes to disseminating knowledge, inspiring research and influencing politics.

The study is published by ACT members Brot für die Welt in cooperation with Brot für Alle, DanChurchAid and Church of Sweden, and written by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).