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Food and Climate: are fundamental changes to agriculture needed?

By Nicholas Robinson , 07-Nov-2012

New analysis from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme has warned that emissions from agriculture are higher than first thought. CCAFS has been examining the role between food production and agriculture, and found that feeding the world produces up to 17,000 megatonnes (mt) of CO2 each year. It says there needs to be some fundamental changes in the way that crops are grown and livestock is produced if the world is to avoid climate disaster.

CGIAR admits the food industry has acknowledged the need to reduce emissions, but points out that with the impact of food production on the environment bigger than first thought, there is an urgent need for more research and work towards climate change mitigation and adaptation.

As CGIAR CEO Frank Rijsberman explains: “We are coming to terms with the fact that agriculture is a critical player in climate change. Not only are emissions from agriculture much larger than previously estimated, but with weather records being set every month as regional climates adjust and reset, there is an urgent need for research that helps smallholder farmers adapt to the new normal.”

CCAFS programme director Bruce Campbell points out that climate change mitigation and adaptation are top priorities and farmers around the world, especially those with smallholdings in developing countries, need to access the latest science, resources and technologies to make a difference.

While the report acknowledges the fact that other studies have looked at the contribution agriculture makes to carbon emissions, it claims to have looked at the whole of the food system. “In total, somewhere between a fifth and a third of greenhouse gases are emitted by people on this planet,” it says. “This figure accounts for every aspect of food production and distribution – including growing crops and raising livestock, manufacturing fertiliser, and storing, transporting and refrigerating food.”

Of the these emissions, agriculture accounts for 80%, but the CGIAR says that the impact of transport, refrigeration, consumer practices and waste is growing. It points out that the need to reduce food-related emissions and adapt to changing weather systems will force the world to change the way that food is produced.

CCAFS head of research Sonja Vermeulen says: “The food-related emissions and, conversely, the impacts of climate change on agriculture and the food system, will profoundly alter the way we grow and produce food. This will affect different parts of the world in radically different ways, but all regions will have to change their current approach to what they grow and eat.”

UK reductions

The UK meat industry has already been working on reducing the amount of carbon it produces. Nick Allen, senior director at the UK’s red meat levy board Eblex, explains: “In England, we are undertaking extensive research work to look at where performance efficiencies can be made to reduce the emissions impact further. We have identified the typical characteristics of high- and low-carbons farms, demonstrated the link between lower emissions and higher financial returns, and found it takes just 67 litres of tap water to produce one kilogram of beef and 49 litres for a kilogram of sheep meat.”

Results from a recent Eblex study show that the carbon footprint of beef production in England has fallen by 9.4% every decade for the last 40 years. Sheep production has also seen a reduction of 9.3% through greater output per ewe and a reduced reliance on artificial fertiliser in the last decade.

Allen adds: “Because of our rain-fed grass pasture system, most of the energy needs of beef cattle and sheep raised in the UK are met by grazing and conserving forage – around 95% for sheep and 85% for beef cattle – so the demand for additional foods to be grown to feed animals is minimal.”

The CGIAR report acknowledges that producing food for a growing global population and lowering the emissions footprint along with adapting food systems to changing climates, is going to present a challenge.

However, CCAFS theme leader Phillip Thornton says early action could help. “The good news is that if farmers and food producers start to adapt now, they can stave off some of the dour food production and distribution scenarios laid out in this research. But they cannot face these complex, interrelated problems, which vary from crop to crop and region to region, alone. They need support from the highest levels.”

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