The case for agriculture in Copenhagen


IRIN – Integrated Regional Information Networks
June 24, 2009

JOHANNESBURG, 24 June 2009 (IRIN) – Gerald C. Nelson, a Senior Research Fellow at the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), makes a case for agriculture in the first of a series of commentaries by various experts in the run-up to the UN climate change talks in Copenhagen in December to reach a global accord on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change compounds the challenges facing agriculture. Nine billion people will live on our planet by 2050, an increase of 50 percent over today. Most of the growth will occur in what is now the developing world.

We all hope that they will live better lives than their parents, with adequate food and higher-quality diets. Even without climate change, meeting this increased demand while preserving our natural resources would be difficult.

Agriculture also contributes to climate change, accounting for almost 15 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. The developing world accounts for nearly half of global agricultural emissions, with 80 percent of those emissions due to changes in land use and forestry. But it can also mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from elsewhere, sequestering carbon above and below ground.

Climate change negotiators should recognize and act on three key points: (1) Improve our understanding of the impact of climate change on agriculture (2) Help poor farmers in the developing world adapt to climate change (3) Pursue climate change mitigation through agriculture.


We must start research, adaptation investments and policy reform now, if we are to feed the world sustainably and reduce poverty in future.

The goal is to find and fund the most cost-effective ways to help the poor adapt. This is a considerable but not insurmountable challenge because of the uncertainty over the magnitude of possible changes, their geographic distribution, and the long lead times needed to implement adaptation efforts.

A key first step is a pro-growth, pro-poor development agenda that supports agricultural sustainability. Adaptation is easier when people have more resources and operate in a flexible economic environment.

Crop and livestock research, including biotechnology, should be urgently pursued to help overcome hotter temperatures, drought and new diseases.

Improvements in water productivity are critical. The distribution and quantity of rainfall will become more variable, increasing the need for better water harvesting, storage and management. Encouraging agricultural water users to conserve is equally important.

Investment in institutional infrastructure (national research and extension programmes, credit and input markets, reduced barriers to internal and international trade) is essential to enhance the resilience of agriculture. Similarly, investment is needed in physical infrastructure (roads, market buildings, storage facilities).


Improved agricultural practices have the potential to mitigate climate change. Carbon can be stored above and below ground by plants – there are many cost-effective options. Changes in management practices can reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions , two extremely potent greenhouse gases that account for much of agriculture’s share.

Funding for research to improve understanding and prediction of the interactions between climate change and agriculture is crucial. At the top of the list are climate change data and assessment tools that are more geographically precise, explicitly incorporate the constraints affecting agricultural productivity, and better integrate biophysical and socioeconomic scenarios.

The variability of land quality and rainfall in the developing world require that technologies be adapted for local conditions.

Farmer education is important. Changing the types of crops can increase soil carbon and restore the quality of degraded soils, enhancing soil fertility and increasing production. Improved land use and management practices can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Adaptation and mitigation synergies

Many changes to cropping systems that make them more resilient to climate change also increase carbon sequestration. Conservation tillage increases soil water retention in drought conditions while also sequestering carbon below ground.

Small-scale irrigation facilities not only conserve water, but also increase crop productivity and soil carbon. Agroforestry systems can increase above- and below-ground carbon storage while also increasing water storage below ground, even in the face of extreme climate events.

Properly managed rangelands can cope better with drought and sequester significant amounts of carbon.

It is imperative that negotiators recognize synergies between adaptation and mitigation. Finding practices that support both goals creates a win-win situation for farmers and the environment.

It will take time to implement the necessary changes in policies and practices, but the world cannot afford the luxury of delay. Now is the time to put agriculture on the Copenhagen agenda.

For more on recommendations to the negotiators on climate and agriculture, please go to:

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