Climate change and agriculture: solutions from the past or the future?

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Agriculture, being a significant contributor to climate change, will no doubt be on the agenda at COP21 discussions being held in Paris at the moment. Despite being a noted omission from UNFCCC negotiations to date, it is a sector which can’t be ignored if we are to halt climate change. Recent research found that while emissions from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses (AFOLU) were dropping in terms of their contribution to overall emissions (29% of man-made emissions in the 1990s to 21% in 2010), emissions from agriculture are growing at around 1% per year. Yet there is a lack of public awareness of the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions from farming. In a global survey by Chatham House less than a third of people surveyed thought that meat and dairy production significantly contributed to climate change, despite it having a larger carbon footprint than the transport sector.

In France the food chain is responsible for approximately 30% of greenhouse gases. Over half originate from agricultural production (the majority of this from methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from soil fertilisation) the remainder from processing, distribution and going to purchase food. In a bid to reduce agriculture-related emissions, supporters of climate-smart agriculture are in Paris to promote the systemic change needed if agriculture is to significantly reduce its role in bringing about climate change. The way in which agriculture should change is the topic of much debate, however.

A recent report, Outsmarting Nature? by the ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation lays out some of the more extreme interventions in biotechnology, which fall under the climate-smart farming agenda. Such synthetic biology approaches include altering plant photosynthesis and releasing “gene drives” to alter natural populations of weeds. In part the report is taking a stand against the world’s largest agro-industrial corporations, many of whom are attending the climate summit as well as against hi-tech, intensive, industrial agriculture, which most would agree we need to move away from. The report claims such technologies, that design and engineer crops for industrial production from scratch, are not only risky for food production but may also fail to tackle climate change as well. Many civil society groups would argue instead for greater support of agroecological, small-scale and peasant farming systems, systems which support millions of smallholder farmers around the world. Although the report is extreme in its views against Big Agribusiness corporations, which they say are responsible for climate change in the first place, it does raise legitimate concerns over our reliance on technology and profit-making solutions instead of tackling the underlying issues, such as exponential economic growth and increasing consumption. It does seem absurd to be chasing technologies that alter the fundamental way in which plants function over transforming agriculture to be more sustainable and environmentally-friendly. Particularly if we assume that techno-fixes will eventually come to the limits of what they can fix.

When considering technological solutions to agricultural climate change mitigation, an important consideration of many civil society groups is “who will benefit?”. In Outsmarting Nature? the benefactor is assumed to be the corporations and their profit margins. Whether this is true is debatable and being a large corporation does not necessarily mean you are not eager to bring about genuine change and benefits for the broader population. What does seem to be the case is that technologies are often only accessible to the relatively well-off. For many smallholder farmers in developing countries even commonly used or small-scale technologies such as fertiliser, drip-irrigation, storage sacks or improved seeds are unaffordable or unavailable.

A new report by the Gaia Foundation and African Biodiversity Network, Celebrating African Rural Women: Custodians of Seed, Food & Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Resilience, explains the importance of traditional knowledge on crops, wild foods, nutrition, medicinal plants and biodiversity, and its crucial role in building resilience to the effects of climate change. Again agri-business is criticised for undermining this knowledge, often held by rural women, through promoting seed monopoly laws, which would prohibit the saving and exchanging of seeds by farmers. In July this year, many African governments signed onto the Agri-business-led ARIPO Protocol introducing seed laws that would criminalize farmers for saving, exchanging and selling the seeds they cultivate. This is detrimental to preserving crop and plant diversity, which are pillars of resilient farming. Without the continuous use and seed exchange, through which crops are shaped to withstand environmental stresses and pests and diseases, crops will fail in the face of climate change and more people will go hungry. The report celebrates the complexity of knowledge African women have on the land, crops and nutrition, and discusses how the continued focus on male farmers and commercialisation of farming has contributed to women and their knowledge being side-lined. Technology and other resources are notoriously inaccessible to many women farmers and may contribute to the decline in traditional farming knowledge and practices that are in essence “climate-smart” such as breeding crops tolerant of rains or drought or pest invasions. The report argues that we need to preserve this knowledge and provide greater support to female farmers if both food insecurity and climate change are to be tackled.

Although the argument presented in these reports is about choosing between technology and more traditional forms of farming, it appears we need both. The important consideration will be ensuring one is not focused on to the detriment of the other. Technology has had and will have an important role to play in transforming all forms of agriculture, in making farming more efficient and reducing emissions but it is unlikely to be enough on its own. We also need support for smallholder farmers, their knowledge and practices, and rural farming systems in developing countries where farming is a livelihood and a way of life. For the most part these systems make little contribution to climate change and no doubt western agriculture could learn from traditional farming knowledge as it seeks to be less damaging to the planet.

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