Despite claiming nearly half of the world’s land and accounting for one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, food and agriculture had always played a secondary role in international climate negotiations, pushed aside in favor of discussions about energy and transportation.
But this year — as delegates from nearly 200 countries met in Paris to push for a global agreement on climate change — agriculture finally got a moment in the spotlight.
Some of that attention is a result of the way that the talks were structured, requiring individual countries to submit independent climate pledges in advance of the conference — something that no other conference has done. Those individual plans — known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs — tend to mention agriculture, especially in relationship to mitigation: more than 80 percent include strategies for mitigating the impact of agriculture on climate change, while 60 percent include strategies for adapting agriculture to climate change.
“Countries see agriculture as part of the solution, and that, I think, is changing things,” Frank Rijsberman, CEO of CGIAR, an agricultural research and development firm, told ThinkProgress. “Because the door was closed for so long, we feel that it being even a little bit open is a good step.”
Food security is mentioned in the preamble to the final Paris agreement, an inclusion that the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s director José Graziano da Silva called “a game changer.” But within the main text of the climate agreement forged in Paris, both food security and agriculture are left out — an absence that some say signals a rift between country-level priorities and international action.
“As a farmer, I sense among my colleagues a growing frustration with this whole process,” Theo De Jager, president of the Pan African Farmers Organisation (PAFO), said during a panel on agriculture and climate change at the Global Landscapes Forum, a two-day event held in Paris during the climate conference. “If we can make such a difference in emissions, why aren’t we mentioned more specifically? There is no fraternity in the world who is more susceptible to climate change than farmers. There is also no fraternity in the world who can do more to decrease emissions over the shortest space of time, in a cheaper way, than we can.”
Even if agriculture is not explicitly mentioned in an international agreement on climate change, that doesn’t necessarily forestall farmers, companies, and research groups from taking action to adopt the mitigation and adaptation strategies outlined in countries’ INDCs — but it does raise the question of where money for those strategies will come from.
For developing countries, Rijsberman hopes that some money will come from the Green Climate Fund and other pools set up to help less developed countries adapt to and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. But that’s far from a given — the Green Climate Fund, while amounting to what seems like a whopping $100 billion, is a pile of cash in high demand. Countries are looking to use that money for a lot of different needs, from creating climate-adapted cities to transforming energy sectors. Farming and food security could be part of that, but it’ll have to compete for funding just like other causes.
Building a more climate-resiliant and better adapted agricultural system won’t come cheap, either. According to CGIAR’s Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the 48 least developed countries will need $5 billion in funding annually to help adapt their farms and farmers to climate change while mitigating their emissions. As Reuters points out, that’s a much larger sum than commitments to climate funds for agriculture are currently promising.
Rijsberman thinks that some of the increased awareness around agriculture and climate change palpable in Paris will translate to greater willingness to divert resources to food and farming.
“We are positive that the kind of buzz we see here also translates into more enthusiasm to include agriculture in climate finance,” he said.
But he also says that countries need to look at policies and programs that create what he calls a “win-win” for agriculture and climate — strategies that help boost food yields and increase food security while also creating more resilient, sustainable food systems.
One potential solution that received a fair amount of attention during the Paris negotiations was the idea of soil sequestration — improving the health of the soil so that it more readily absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. Still, despite storing three times as much carbon as is in the atmosphere, little is known about how to consistently increase the amount of carbon taken up by soil.
“The good thing is that no one disagrees that increasing soil carbon is good for agriculture, is good for the environment, good for food security,” Rijsberman said. “If we can do it in a stable way, it captures carbon and reduces emissions. It can be a double or triple win.”
As Nathanael Johnson points out at Grist, the problem with increasing soil sequestration of carbon is that there are a lot of ideas, none of which are proven to be 100 percent effective 100 percent of the time. Biotech companies point to no-till farming as a fool-proof method of increasing soil carbon, while organic farmers will point to things like an increase in organic matter on top of the soil (compost or manure, for instance). Both of those concepts work some of the time, but neither have been shown to work all of the time.
To help understand how to better sequester carbon in the soil, the French government recently launched an initiative called “4 pour 1000,” a reference to the 0.4 percent annual increase in soil carbon sequestration needed to offset human emissions.
During the Paris climate conference, CGIAR announced that it had also signed on to the initiative, working with the governments of seven countries (Vietnam, Nepal, Colombia, Senegal, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda) to help scale up climate-smart agriculture with a focus on soil health.
CGIAR’s program would be a five-year, $225 million project, with the end goal of sequestering 25 megatons of carbon will improving farming yields by 20 percent.
It’s through programs like “4 pour 1000,” Rijsberman told ThinkProgress, that agriculture can continue to build on the interest and progress made in Paris.
“Our role as an agriculture for development organization is to say how can we increase, and scale up and scale out, climate smart agriculture,” he said. “Coming up with win-win solutions is part of the challenge we face.”