Climate change and Agriculture - Practical Action briefing

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 17th Mar 2020

Agriculture produces the food humans need to live an active and healthy life and provides livelihoods for about half the world’s population. But it also has a troubling relationship to climate change – simultaneously being affected by and a cause of the problem. Based on the impact of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, changes in climate are expected to lead to drastically reduced agricultural production in parts of the world, with potentially a 50% reduction in Africa alone. This reduction will affect global food supplies and disproportionately impact on the poor.

Yet certain agricultural practises significantly contribute to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, both directly through the use of fossil fuels, and indirectly, for example through deforestation driven by the demand for land, usually for cash crops, which releases stored carbon into the atmosphere. This need not be the case; agriculture also has the capacity to contribute to removal of GHG from the atmosphere. Practical Action’s projects and policy work, therefore, address agriculture as a key sector in which support and change are needed to ensure effective adaptation and to maximize the huge potential for mitigating climate change

Adapting to climate change through biodiverse agriculture

Agriculture depends on more or less predictable weather which allows farmers to plan for successful yields and maintain reliable outputs. The current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere mean that, even with the most ambitious mitigation strategies, climate change will still bring impacts in the next 20 years, disrupting the ecosystems and acquired knowledge that underpin agricultural productivity. Rapid and unforeseen changes in climate will affect environmental conditions such as temperature and rainfall, and in turn, these will affect natural resources on which agriculture depends, including soil organisms, pollinating insects and pest predators.

Discrete hazards such as flash flooding, droughts or storms can quickly damage or destroy crops, livestock and infrastructure, whilst continuous hazards - slower, incremental changes to the average conditions, such as warmer winters, wetter summers or earlier seasonal changes - will alter the timing and rate of growth for plant, animal and fish species, and change the geographical distribution of crop and wild species as well as disease vectors. In all, food supplies will become more unpredictable, especially for the 370 million of the world’s poorest who already have scarce resources yet rely on agriculture to survive in challenging environments. The need for adaptation in agriculture is therefore paramount. Practical Action’s approach reduces vulnerability to changes in climate by strengthening resilience and building adaptive capacity.

Strengthening resilience

Resilient agriculture reflects the need to sustain yields from land and sea in the face of weather-related events and gradual temperature variations. Healthy biodiverse soils are resilient, retaining moisture in a drying climate; diverse ecosystems can adapt to new pests or increased pest numbers; and livelihoods can be insulated by decreasing dependence on external inputs, and less reliance on just a few crops.

Building adaptive capacity

Adaptive capacity is an active process that involves the ability of individuals or communities to modify and transform practices in response to climate change. Using accessible information on short, medium and long term weather and climate projections, agricultural biodiversity is a vital asset that enables the adaptation of food species to a changing environment; it both contributes to a wider self-reliance and makes greater use of local knowledge. These techniques provide opportunities to learn, innovate and make decisions in response to climate change information.

Mitigating climate change through agriculture

Whilst urgent support is required to protect agricultural livelihoods, major reductions in GHGs emissions need to occur to prevent further accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere leading to irreversible climate change, where adaptation will become increasingly difficult. Practical Action believes that many mitigation actions can be taken within the agriculture sector itself, predominately in industrial farming.

Agriculture accounts for around 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Land use change (from forest to farmland), driven by industrial production methods, accounts for more than half of agricultural emissions. Intensive livestock rearing and fertilizer use dominate the remainder, making agriculture responsible for around half of all methane and 60% of all nitrous oxide emissions, both of which have far greater global warming impact than carbon dioxide. Fortunately, agriculture and food production provide huge opportunities to make a positive impact on global climate change. GHGs are emitted at all stages of the supply chain, from the manufacture and operation of agricultural machinery to the ‘food miles’ covered in a globalised supply chain, and each link offers opportunities for better efficiency or transformation. The transition from fossil fuelled industrial production to ecologically-based agriculture focussed on supplying local needs and enhancing biodiversity is one such transformation.

But the potential of agriculture goes further than just emissions reductions: agro-ecological approaches to food production enable storage and ‘sequestration’ of the GHGs already in the atmosphere. Techniques used by many small-holder farmers, such as increasing soil biodiversity, introducing perennial crops, using diverse leguminous crops, and planting temporary vegetative cover between successive crops, help to capture and store carbon and nitrous oxide below ground. Reflecting on nearly three decades of research, a recent report from the US Rodale Institute concluded that implementing ‘established, scientifically researched and proven’ biodiversity based farming would change agriculture from a major contributor to global warming to an inhibitor.

International calls for a different way of agriculture

The crossover between mitigation and adaptation that biodiverse agriculture offers is a unique opportunity that should be welcomed and employed globally as a dual response to the problems of climate change. The four year International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), approved by 58 governments in 2008, highlighted the need for investment and public research in, amongst other things, low-input and agro-ecological systems and reduced dependency on fossil fuels.

In the international discussions towards a post-2012 successor to the Kyoto Protocol that will culminate in Copenhagen, there is an awareness of the role agriculture has to play in mitigating climate change. The land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) stream considers the possibilities for reducing and capturing emissions through ground-level conservation. The link between a resilient, biodiverse agriculture and adaptation, however, does not feature in the UNFCCC negotiations. If agriculture is to be included in the multilateral framework for dealing with climate change it is crucial that the focus is on promoting sustainable, biodiverse, agro-ecological approaches for both their mitigating and adaptation potential, rather than monetising the value of ‘ecosystem services’.

These approaches are echoed in the global calls by small-scale farmers for food sovereignty, embracing climate-proofed biodiverse agriculture, as a counter to the power of agribusiness and a means of returning control over all aspects of food production to local food providers.

This briefing paper and others in the series can be found here