Putting agricultural greenhouse gas emissions on the agenda, not just the menu

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

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Credit: Paul Keeris, 2015

The conference catering trolley: it’s usually piled high with unlabelled food, can be something of a taste Russian roulette, and is often left untouched. It can be a saving grace for the rushed conference attendee or keen networker, but can also seem like a terrible waste.

There will no-doubt be catering trollies at this week’s Climate Action 2016 meetings in Washington, DC, leading one to ponder if the menu and agenda will be in harmony. The summit comes just two weeks after the Paris Agreement was signed, and eight months since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed.

Happily, the agenda for this week’s meetings does include mention of agriculture, which is often strangely absent from high-level discussions about climate change. For example, the COP21 discussions were described as “‘Les Champs-Oubliés,’ or ‘the forgotten fields’” because they largely neglected to mention agriculture as a part of the problem or solution. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from agriculture have nearly doubled in the last 50 years and currently account for one-third of all GHGs, or more than 5.3 billion tonnes per year. At the same time, agriculture and smallholder farmers are also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially in developing countries.

Meat consumption is on the rise

meat production

Meat production by region. FAO STAT, 2016

Of particular concern should be the rise in global meat consumption. GHG emissions from livestock production represent at least 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. Enteric fermentation, when livestock produce methane as part of digestion then release it by belching, accounts for 39% of the agricultural sector’s GHG emissions, and rose by 11% in the decade between 2001 and 2011. Despite this damning evidence, meat consumption is on the rise. For example, the global demand for beef is projected to increase by 95% between 2006 and 2050 despite it being one of the most resource-intensive and environmentally damaging foods. Beef production uses seven times more resources, such as water, energy, and food or inputs than pork or poultry, and 20 times more than pulses. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles

Growing Pains, The Economist

Global Food Security by the Numbers, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

New studies deepen concerns about a climate-change ‘wild card’, The Washington Post

EU to Release $558 Million to Help Struggling Farmers, The Wall Street Journal

Land degradation costs the world up to $10.6tn a year, report says, The Guardian

Farming flicks help teach ag skills where they’re really needed, Grist

Africa’s new institution to promote food security, SciDev.Net

Who Will Suffer Most From Climate Change? (Hint: Not You), Gates Notes

Kale or steak? Change in diet key to U.N. plan to end hunger by 2030, Reuters

Climate-smart cities could save the world $22tn, say economists, The Guardian

Two roads diverged in the food crisis: Global policy takes the one more travelled, Wise, 2015, Canadian Food Studies [Read more…]

The Budongo Forest Landscape: Diets, Food Security and Nutrition

IMG_1366Around the Budongo forest, expanding sugarcane production, the establishment of tree plantations and forest loss have altered the landscape. In this rural area where nearly all households have a home garden or farm and, as such, rely, to varying degrees, on the food produced on their own land, such land use change can have a dramatic impact on livelihoods, diets and nutrition. Be it because of an increased incidence of crop raiding, unreliable weather patterns and seasons, or soil erosion, all thought to be a result of forest loss in the area, the changing landscape is a cause for concern among those who live there. A key element of the research in this landscape is to try to understand the links between land use change and food and nutrition security. As a first step this included investigating current levels of food insecurity, the diets of local people, how households characterise food security and what the drivers of food insecurity might be.

In Uganda, 48% of households were food energy deficient between 2009 and 2010 and the number of people suffering from hunger has increased from 12 million in 1992 to 17.7 million in 2007, mainly due to high population growth.

Deaths in children attributed to malnutrition 40%
% of children under the age of five who are stunted 38%
% of children under the age of five who are underweight for their age 25.5%
Prevalence rate of vitamin A deficiency 5.4%
% of the population affected by iron deficiency anaemia >50%
Total goitre rate due to iodine deficiency >60%
Average calorie consumption as a per cent of recommended requirements 75-90%
% below minimum recommended levels for protein consumption 33%
% below minimum recommended levels for fat consumption 20%

Source: MAAIF & MIH, 2005

In the Budongo Forest landscape, individuals and communities were asked about their ability to access and produce enough food. Many people reported that due to decreasing soil fertility, land exhaustion, high food prices and unpredictable or extreme weather such as droughts and floods, they were not able to produce enough food for their families year round. Many families (just under 50% of the 540 households interviewed) shared that they had experienced food shortages in the last year, with 3 to 6 months being the most common length of time such food scarcity occurred for. During these times coping mechanisms, apart from eating less, included turning to a neighbour or family member for help or trying to obtain a job on someone else’s land as a labourer. Income earned off the farm is then used to buy food or rent land to produce more food. [Read more…]

Making livestock farming more sustainable

ID-1005418The livestock sector is important as a source of protein and income, and some one billion people rely on livestock for their livelihood but it is generally accepted that the world’s livestock systems place a huge burden on the environment, for example, contributing 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Some 45% of these emissions originate from the production of feed. The one billion tons of cereals produced for feed each year could feed an estimated 3.5 billion humans. The health impacts of a diet high in meat have also been widely reported.  It is clear that the world’s livestock systems are not sustainable but how can we change this? Two new reports address this challenge.

A Nature commentary piece authored by Eisler et al, discusses the need for the sustainable intensification of livestock. They highlight eight strategies to cut the environmental and economic costs of livestock farming while increasing the quantity and quality of the food they produce.

1)      Feed animals less human food. Of the third or more of cereal grains going to livestock feed, 40% goes to ruminants. But ruminants, such as cattle, can survive on food inedible to humans, such as hay, silage and high-fibre crop residues. They can also graze in marginal areas leaving prime agricultural land for growing human food.

2)      Raise regionally appropriate animals. Highly productive livestock breeds such as Holstein cattle have been introduced around the world in the pursuit of increased productivity. Given that they are a temperate breed, however, they are often expensive and labour-intensive to manage in other climates, and yields can be less than a third of normal yields under these conditions. Working with breeds adapted to local conditions such as those resistant to local pests and diseases may be a less risky option, particularly for poor households.

3)      Keep animals healthy. Improving hygiene, quarantine and disease surveillance practices can help avoid animal diseases being transmitted to humans. 13 livestock-related zoonoses cause 2.4 billion cases of human illness and 2.2 million deaths each year. Improving husbandry practices and animal welfare, for example keeping livestock at lower densities, can improve the health of livestock and the quantity and quality of livestock products.

4)      Adopt smart supplements. Specific plant extracts can help microbial populations in the rumen to grow faster, using nitrogen and energy more efficiently and boosting yields without significantly increasing GHG emissions. And smart supplements don’t have to be expensive: a water fern in India is a source of extra protein for cattle and goats. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

One small change of words – a giant leap in effectiveness!, World Agroforestry Centre

Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims, Nature

Enabling African Farmers to Feed the World, Farming First

Roundtable on Sustainable African Agriculture and CAADP 2014 review, PAEPARD

Agricultural Input Subsidies. The Recent Malawi Experience, Ephraim Chirwa and Andrew Dorward

African Farmers Reap Gains Of Biotech Cotton, CoastWeek

Humans are becoming more carnivorous, Nature

Seeds of hope emerge across the world’s drylands, World Agroforestry Centre

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to examine Food Security, UK Parliament

For sustainable growth, count on agriculture, Thomson Reuters Foundation [Read more…]