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

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0


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…]

Climate change, food production and food security


Photo by 9comeback

Last week we introduced a study looking at how climate change will potentially affect crop growing in sub-Saharan Africa and how extreme the changes to farming methods will need to be in order to adapt. Now several recent articles researchers explain how food and nutrition insecurity is likely to worsen in the face of climate change and how we can prevent our food production systems from undermining efforts to mitigate the long-term climate effects.

A recent study in The Lancet, building on previous research, indicates that global food supply as impacted by climate change could cause over half a million deaths by 2050, largely due to a rise in undernutrition. While it is understood, at least to some degree, that crop yields will be affected, largely adversely, by climate change, the findings that it will also affect the composition of many people’s diets is relatively novel. The study also predicts the impacts of climate on diets will surpass undernutrition as a major cause of death.

The availability of healthy foods is expected to decline under climate change with consumption of fruits and vegetables predicted to decrease by some 4% by 2050, in comparison with a scenario free of global warming. And while this decline is likely to be most severe in low and medium-income countries in the Western Pacific region, the impacts will be felt everywhere including high-income countries.

And we are already seeing the effects of climate change in Southeast Asia and Africa where droughts have increased undernutrition in children, food prices have dramatically increased and crop production declined. Obviously since the poorest households spend the highest proportion of their income on food, low food availability and increased food prices will have a substantially greater impact on them. While meeting commitments made in the Paris Agreement will go some way to minimising the effects of climate change on diets and nutrition, governments will also need policies in place to address shortfalls in both production and in consumption. [Read more…]

Land use change to increase livestock productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions

ID-10013909Land use change, while most often associated with the loss of natural habitat, could be a cost-effective method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving threatened species. A new study in Nature entitled, Cheap carbon and biodiversity co-benefits from forest regeneration in a hotspot of endemism, investigated carbon stocks, biodiversity and economic values in the western Andes of Colombia, a threatened ecosystem rich in endemic species where land is predominantly used for cattle farming.

Results of the study found that if farmers were to allow forest to regenerate on their land, foregoing cattle farming, they would match or increase their current incomes through receiving payments for carbon. Under current carbon markets the price per tonne of carbon dioxide trees remove from the atmosphere is $1.99. Farmers’ land would be leased for 30 years and they would be paid for the carbon grown.

Aside from the benefits for climate change mitigation, forest regeneration would also support biodiversity. In their study, researchers found 33 out of the 40 red-list bird species in the area existed in secondary forest, compared to 11 in cattle pastures.

While researchers claim the regeneration of forest on cattle land in this region to be a win-win, for climate change, biodiversity and farmers’ livelihoods, such a study fails to take into account the sustainability of carbon payments through, for example, REDD+, particularly if cattle prices increase on the global market, the growing demand for livestock products and the broader role livestock play in the livelihoods and cultures of communities in the region.

Another study recently published found, through the use of an economic model of global land use, that the intensification of cattle farming in Brazil, through either a tax on cattle from conventional pasture or a subsidy for cattle from semi-intensive pasture, could reduce deforestation and associated greenhouse gas emissions, and double productivity in pasturelands. Cattle ranching in Brazil is thought to be responsible for 75 to 80% of deforestation in the country. [Read more…]

True cost accounting in food and farming: stories, smallholders and virtuous circles

True-Cost_Option2-1389x500_(1)1On the 6th December the Sustainable Food Trust held a conference entitled True Cost Accounting in Food and Farming at the Royal Geographical Society following a two day workshop on the same topic. Central to the conference was the understanding that if food systems are to become truly sustainable, the actual (environmental and social) cost of producing food must be reflected in retail prices. Food producers, suppliers and retailers need to be financially accountable for the impacts of production on environmental and public health.

The challenges we face

The event began with a story, starting 60 years ago when the need for cheap food drove agricultural development, disconnecting people from the origin of our food and creating an industry where small family farms could not compete. Despite the good intentions to end world hunger and make food accessible to all, the environmental and public health costs were considered too late (if at all). A small group of people (environmentalists and animal welfare lobbyists among them) advocated the need to consider the wider impacts of our food systems, a plea that is ongoing but largely ignored even today. As Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust and storyteller, explained, the conference, the largest international gathering on the subject of true cost accounting, aimed to be the beginning of a process of moving true cost accounting beyond rhetoric, objection and protest to one of real action.

Kicking off the event was a video message from HRH Prince Charles who began by stating that the biggest challenge the world faces today is producing enough food without doing irreparable damage to the environment and human health, a challenge made much harder by the likely impacts of climate change. He emphasised the need for the polluter to pay despite the financial odds being stacked against this objective. A burning question is whether the polluter pays principle will affect businesses and their ability to turn a profit or instead drive innovation, as in the case of the Land Fill Tax, which created new jobs and instigated greater recycling efforts. We need to understand better how food producers can make a profit whilst also moving to a more agroecological approach. He ended by expressing his hope that the outcome of the conference and workshops would be the commission of a study to find out if it is more profitable to farm by putting nature at the centre of food producing operations. The heart of the problem we face is the “economic invisibility of nature” and in realising that the ultimate source of economic capital is natural capital and not the other way around. We will only inflict conflict and misery if we continue farming based on increasingly weakened ecosystems.

Professor Jules Pretty, University of Essex, explained how our understanding of the negative externalities that the modern agricultural and green revolutions have caused began with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which documented bird losses occurring due to seed treatments. In 1992 Prof. Pretty and Gordon Conway wrote Unwelcome Harvest, which documented the wider impacts of food production but was still only part of the picture. In 1998, a team at the University of Essex published a paper that showed the total cost of agriculture in the UK to the environment to be £2.4 billion per year, in part from the contamination of water by pesticides, soil erosion, organic carbon losses and greenhouse gas emissions. This figure showed that the environmental costs alone of our agricultural systems were higher than net farm income. While similar studies were published in other countries, the outputs were criticised for ignoring the positive externalities of agriculture i.e. its contribution to the environment and human health. In 2005, Prof. Pretty and another of the day’s speakers, Prof. Tim Lang, City University London, recalculated the externalities of agriculture, expanding the boundaries from farm to fork, resulting in a lower figure. The most surprising result was that the environmental burden arising from food miles was greater than the environmental cost on farm, and most significant of all was the minimal impact of importing food and transporting it around the country compared to household shopping trips.

Prof. Pretty then went on to discuss our current farming systems, divided into three and represented by a glass of water. The first, almost filled to the brim with water, represented an industrial system, very productive but with lots of spillover effects. The second, half full, showed moderately productive systems trading some of the productivity of intensive systems for a lower impact on the environment. The third glass, with only a small amount of water, represented the 2.4 billion producers in the world who have yields of ½ to 1 tonne per hectare (compared to the UK average yields of 8t/ha). The latter could, theoretically, more than double yields with little environmental impact with the right agroecological techniques and farmer engagement. While some argue that feeding the world is more a matter of better distribution and reducing food waste, Prof. Pretty believes we need to focus on increasing the food production of these 2.4 billion farmers, many of whom are poor, on their own farms. But we need to increase production in the right way.

In 1997, Prof. Pretty coined the term sustainable intensification to highlight the fact that we need to do more and better on existing agricultural land. The term doesn’t imply that one system or technology is better than another, instead it is about getting the best outcomes for a range of objectives. There are a pantheon of options, for example, no till farming, push-pull pest control, precision farming to name a few and the right choice will depend on the agroecological circumstances. In 2009, Reaping the Benefits, a report by the Royal Society concluded that the need to increase food production by 70% to 2050 would have to come from existing land and that we need to do intensification better, accentuating the positive and diminishing the negative. In a sense we need to:

JP graphic









Of course the environmental impacts are only one of agriculture’s hidden costs, as Prof. Tim Lang explained. Of the 19 leading risk factors of disease, which account for 58.8 million deaths each year, food is a contributory factor in 10 of these, for example cardiovascular disease (CVD). In 2011 to 2030 CVD will cause economic losses of $15 trillion. From 2010 to 2030 non-communicable diseases such as diabetes are estimated to cost 48% of global GDP and yet the cost to prevent many of these diseases is very small in comparison. Prof. Lang expands that if food systems are to be designed with public health in mind they would look very different: more horticulture, less meat and dairy production for example. Dr. Pete Myers, Environmental Health Services, talked about the impacts of agrochemicals on human health, of which only the tiniest fraction of chemicals have been studied and linked to health and economic costs. Much of our knowledge on the impact of agrochemicals is based on outdated methodologies, ignoring the huge advances in epigenetics and endocrine disruptors of more recent years as well as cocktail and timing effects. For example, many chemicals whose properties we thought we knew may have a different impact when combined with other chemicals and exposure to even low doses of chemicals can have a profound effect, sometimes much later in life. Dr. Myers gave as an example the effect of 2.5 parts per billion (ppb) of atrazine (farmers usually apply at higher concentrations) to frogs from hatching to adult, the result was the conversion of a genetic male to a fully functioning female (i.e. able to reproduce). In another experiment, the same strain of mice, eating the same amount of calories and undertaking the same physical activities, would become obese when exposed to 1ppb of obesogens (commonly used as fungicides) from birth, stem cells that would have become bone cells becoming fat cells.

So our food production systems produce negative impacts on the environment and for human health but our understanding of these hidden costs is still relatively small and even smaller when it comes to how this information should be used. While some at the conference argued for the inclusion of these costs into retail prices of food, others acknowledged the impact this could have on the poor and hungry, and instead urged the use of such figures in guiding policy making, whose language is predominantly one of economics. [Read more…]

Going vegetarian: the answer to the world’s problems?

Speaking at the First International Conference on Global Food Security held last month in the Netherlands, David Tilman, Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Ecology at the University of Minnesota and professor at University of California, Santa Barbara‘s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, presented his views on how we can achieve global food security and environmental sustainability.

Food insecurity and unsustainable use of the environment are two of the greatest challenges we as a society face. And they are linked: how we tackle one problem will affect the other. Prof. Tilman laid out the main barriers we face to achieving food security and environmental sustainability:

1)      Increased demand driven by population and income growth

2)      Dietary shifts and health including under and over nutrition

3)      Environmental issues which include greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss.

Speaking to the second barrier in his list, Prof.Tilman explained that as income increases so does the demand for calories and animal protein. He pointed to the need for changes in dietary behaviour, without which it is unlikely we will address the world’s problems.

By 2050 global demand for crop protein will have increased by 110%, for crop calories by 100%. 30% of these increases will be a product of population growth, 70% from higher incomes, which are increasing most rapidly in poorer nations.

Changing our diets will not only address some of this growth in demand but it could also make us healthier. Recent evidence points to a 50 to 60% lower incidence of diabetes in lower meat diets. A pesco-vegetarian diet can add up to 10 years of life to a human adult, although there are multiple confounding factors that could bias this result. There is also a huge disparity in terms of access to meat, with half the global population having access to less animal protein than recommended under a low meat diet. So some people eat too much meat, some not enough.

Health benefits aside, a lower meat diet, for those with excessive meat consumption, also has environmental impacts in terms of agricultural production and how it expands. For example shifting towards greater production of fruits and vegetables, for which the whole world is underachieving in terms of eating the recommended amounts, less livestock and increased aquaculture.

Looking to the environmental sustainability challenge, Prof. Tilman explained that annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion equate to almost 9 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon equivalent, an amount that is hard to reduce given the world’s energy needs. If everybody drove a hybrid car, for example, this total amount would be reduced only by about one twentieth. At the moment it is hard to see how we will even reduce the rate at which emissions are growing each year. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (not including fossil fuels which make up about 10% of agricultural emissions) are just under 4Gt of carbon equivalent per year, most of which comes from land clearing, livestock production and nitrogen fertilisation.  If diets continue to change and yields continue on their past growth trajectories, by 2050 agricultural emissions will have increased by an additional 4Gt per year. [Read more…]

Innovation in the agriculture, forestry and other land uses sector could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half

SmithA new paper by Smith et al published in Global Change Biology asks the question, How much land-based greenhouse gas mitigation can be achieved without compromising food security and environmental goals? Authors attempt to answer this question by modelling the potential of supply- and demand-side mitigation options available in the Agriculture, Forestry and other land uses sector, as well as their impacts on one another and on food security.

On the supply side such practices as alternative uses for biomass, and land sparing, have the potential to reduce emissions by 1.5 to 4.3 Gt CO2 equivalent per year at carbon prices of between $20 and $100. For 2011, the International Energy Agency estimated annual emissions as 31.6 Gt CO2 equivalent. Seeking to reduce the carbon footprint of the AFOLU sector while at the same time increasing food production, is a core aim of sustainable intensification, which advocates using inputs in a more judicious manner to achieve greater outputs.

On the demand-side measures such as reducing food waste and shifting to less resource-intensive diets could reduce emissions between 1.5 and 15.6 Gt CO2 equivalent per year. Such solutions may also aid in the fight against food insecurity and hunger.

The paper advocates for action to be taken on both the supply- and demand-sides, which when their maximum potentials are totalled could mean a halving of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Sonja Vermuelen, Head of Research at CGIAR’s research programme on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), in her blog on the paper, indicates the importance of policy, both for stimulating a shift to sustainable intensification but also the considerable changes in consumer behaviour that will be required. Political leadership, determination and significant innovation will be needed if we are to reach this goal.

What we’ve been reading this week

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

New study: A warming world will further intensify extreme precipitation events, NOAA

Pioneers in Sustainable Food Show We Can Eat Well and Protect Environment, NRDC

You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions? Lee et al

Transforming lives through improved access to agricultural education in Africa, NRI

Enterprise fund, Farm Africa

Land sparing versus land sharing: new evidence, Ideas for Sustainability

Traditional weeding methods still prevail on Ugandan farms, Pathways to Productivity

How can agribusiness work best for development? The Guardian

Important source of greenhouse gas emissions from farmland underestimated, UC Davis

Uganda’s genetically modified golden bananas, BBC

Robustness and strategies of adaptation among farmer varieties of African rice (Oryza glaberrima) and Asian rice (Oryza sativa) across West Africa, PLoS One

Examining benefits and safety of genetically modified crops, Peoples Daily

Gender-sensitive climate finance crucial – experts, AlertNet

New IATP report addresses water governance in the 21st century, IATP

Loss of wild pollinators would hit crops, finds study, SciDev.Net

Fighting for family farmers, Huffington Post

The G-20 and Food Security: What Is the Right Agenda? The Stanley Institute

Obama signs ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ written by Monsanto-sponsored senator, RT