Is sustainable agriculture the answer to climate change?

Drought can have devastating effects on crop yields (Credit: USAID Africa Bureau)

Drought can have devastating effects on crop yields
(Credit: USAID Africa Bureau)

As the most recent set of climate change talks draw to a close, the focus is once again on the policies that could help in the resolution of this global issue. There has been little faith in the outcomes of these talks before, with targets continuously missed. The conference aims to secure a new treaty by 2015, replacing the 1997 Kyoto protocol, which has seen a range of success and failures. The current talks are being held in Doha, Qatar, which has the highest per capita carbon emissions and gets the majority of its income from the sale of fossil fuels.

Africa, the continent with the lowest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, is thought to be at greatest risk from climate change. Water stress is increasing which, in practise, means people have to walk further for water, and crops yields will suffer. New technologies are being developed to help Africa with this problem, but they simply cannot afford these innovations.

So the policies aren’t working, scientific innovation isn’t the answer- what else can be done?

As well as being affected by climate change, agriculture is also a contributor to it, through the release of greenhouse gases. The Worldwatch Institute have carried out research into the feasibility of using sustainable agriculture to mitigate climate change. Practices such as reducing artificial fertilisers in favour of animal manure and planting trees to take in carbon dioxide and reduce soil erosion will go some way to minimise the contribution of agriculture to climate change. But how far? The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN) suggests more sustainable agriculture could reduce the contribution by up to 88%. Worldwatch has produced a report which highlights 6 ways to make agriculture more sustainable. These are:

  • Increase soil fertility- avoid unnecessary tilling and chemical usage.
  • Agroforestry- trees sequester carbon and maintain organic matter and moisture in soil, as well as providing an ecosystem for pollinators.
  • Cover crops- these decrease risk of drought by increasing soil fertility and moisture. The plants can then be ploughed into the soil, providing organic matter. Some may exude insecticidal chemicals to deter pests.
  • Improve water conservation- recycling water in cities, catching rainwater and using drip irrigation instead of sprinklers.
  • Biodiversity- grow diverse crops , to minimise the risk of entire crop failure. Locally adapted crops are more likely to provide good yields.

These practises will need to be adopted worldwide in order to have the impact hoped for. This relies on the promotion of these sustainable methods to everyone involved in agriculture, including both small holder and large, commercial farms.

References

Worldwatch Blog: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/supporting-climate-friendly-food-production/

The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/shortcuts/2012/nov/28/doha-strange-place-climate-change-conference

4 Responses to Is sustainable agriculture the answer to climate change?

  1. N/A says:

    I am uncertain as to whether sustainable agriculture will affect climate change, but it is vital that we begin increasing its frequency.

    Working for a prominent international agriculture corporation, I see 8 years of research dwindled down into incremental values. Countless man-hours spent planting, harvesting, planting, maintaining, harvesting, all to increase yields by a 1-2% margin. Conference calls celebrating our sales of disease-resistant varieties; varieties that only exist due to farmers’ refusal to maintain the suggested 4 year rotation cycle, instead opting for a 1-2 year rotation cycle.

    When a company doesn’t even care to initiate a plastic recycling program how can they be expected to care for sustainable development? And I haven’t even begun on describing their practices with respect to PNTs. It’s up to the consumer, I vote everyday by where I choose to spend my money and I actively choose to NOT spend my money supporting companies that don’t support communities or sustainable development.

  2. Claire Curry says:

    Thank you for your comment, you raise some interesting points, including how we can force changes by influencing supply and demand systems. Interestingly, we have seen this to an extent in the UK today, with a certain hot drinks chain making changes after getting a ‘loud and clear’ message through customer choice.
    In that case, the media had a large influence in highlighting the problems. This shows we need to get the information out there, and allow both producers and consumers to make informed choices.

  3. cultivEat says:

    Reblogged this on cultivate.eat.sustain.

    • N/A says:

      Hi Claire,

      I think we are reaching a point where education is slowly starting to have a visible effect. In North America governments need to take on a more active role in order to provide infrastructure for sustainable agriculture ie. Promote farmers markets.

      I am on the board of a local non-profit that is working to enhance sustainable development, and what I am seeing is a huge government resistance to changes in the agricultural industry. Unfortunately it feels like the population and private industries are
      responsible for supporting a sustainable
      future, while the government waits to see
      what new trend they want to support.

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