22 Apr Can agriculture be a part of the climate change solution?
Agriculture isn’t usually a part of discussions on tackling climate change. Though agriculture is largely recognised for being highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, there’s also a flipside to this. Agriculture is directly responsible for about 10 – 12 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions1. These GHGs are not inherently bad because they help trap the heat like a blanket and make the earth warm and habitable. However, excess GHG emissions generated by human activities including agriculture are a major concern as they lead to increased temperature resulting in the ongoing global warming phenomenon and the greater problem of climate change.
In the agriculture sector, livestock & fisheries, flooded rice cultivation and use of chemical fertilizers are major contributors of the emissions. Livestock and fisheries contribute the largest share of GHGs, measuring 31% of the total emissions generated from food production2. In the livestock, ruminants such as cattle are responsible for 65% of the emissions3. Ruminants produce methane as a by-product of their digestion process, which is released into the atmosphere through belching. Methane production from flooded rice cultivation and use of chemical fertilizers are the other major contributors accounting for 10% and 13% of agricultural emissions worldwide. Further, the overall negative impact of our global food system on our environment is even greater, accounting for approximately a quarter of the global GHG emissions (~26%), due to inefficient food supply chains, food wastage, as well as global deforestation driven by our dietary choices.
Given that climate change will continue to impact agriculture and the world’s food supply and vice versa, there is a need to reorient and reinvent the role of agricultural systems in the battle against climate change. To this end, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) climate-smart agriculture (CSA) approach might be a potential game changer. CSA aims to achieve three main goals: ‘sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible’4.
Measures documented in different parts of the world show that agriculture does have immense potential for lowering emission levels and transforming the sector into a carbon sink. Some of the prominent options with high mitigating potential, currently practiced across the world include improved crop and grazing land management (e.g. crop rotation with legumes, intercropping, zero tillage, precision farming), livestock and manure management (e.g. changing animals’ diets, introducing food supplements, storing dry manure), restoration of degraded lands (e.g. planting of grasses, agroforestry i.e. integrating trees on farms or marginally productive lands), water management (e.g. draining wetland rice to avoid water logging) and management of organic soils.
All these options are not only highly effective in promoting climate stability by reducing emissions, but also have multiple co-benefits that CSA endorses like increasing the income of farmers and helping them withstand the climate extremes. For example, agricultural farms that have been planted with a mix of crops and trees spared the damage from tilling, over-grazing and intensive use of chemical fertilizers. They not only sequester carbon well but also retain more water than industrially farmed soils, which means they are also less vulnerable to flooding and droughts.
Virtually all climate smart practices are found to be cost competitive over a longer period in achieving climate goals and provide additional environmental benefits such as clean water and improved biodiversity. Hence, agriculture is indeed a critical cog of the climate change solution machinery with a great potential for lowering GHG emissions and building communities’ resilience. We need to strive towards promoting and implementing such multi-faceted strategies and technologies which will help cushion communities from the adverse impacts of climate change as well as develop our world more sustainably.