In-depth: Gathering Storm - the humanitarian impact of climate change

GLOBAL: Put small-scale farmers on the climate change talks agenda

Small-scale farmers in developing countries are vulnerable to the unfolding impact of climate change
Johannesburg, 2 April 2009 (IRIN) - Food experts called attention to agriculture as a driver of climate change as the first round of talks on a global agreement to cut dangerous greenhouse gas emissions got underway in Germany this week, but development agency Oxfam cautioned that the focus should be on getting a better deal on adaptation for farmers.

Agriculture is the main source of income and food for half the world's population; it is most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, but is also a major source of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.

About 14 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, mostly carbon dioxide, come from agriculture, but around 74 percent of total agricultural emissions originate in developing countries.

Three billion of the developing world's 5.5 billion people - nearly half the global population - live in rural areas, and an estimated 2.5 billion of these rural inhabitants live in households involved in agriculture, according to the World Bank.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a Washington-based think-tank, again called for greater emphasis on agriculture at the talks in Bonn, Germany, perhaps with an eye to financing for projects that would cut greenhouse gas emissions

The Bonn talks are preliminary to negotiating a deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.

Antonio Hill, representing Oxfam, the UK-based international NGO, at the talks in Bonn, pointed out that as most agricultural emissions originate in developing countries, "and these bear the least responsibility for tackling climate change, pushing such responses over industrial emissions abatement in rich countries would be fundamentally unfair".

Various projections have shown that the unfolding impact of climate change will affect food production in developing countries. Hill cited the "evolving picture" of long-running droughts in several countries in all continents, and lower harvest potentials in 2009, to emphasize the need for greater focus on adaptation.

FAO has projected a drop in cereal production for 2009 partly on account of adverse weather. FAO's Peter Holmgren said projects that would help reduce agricultural emissions also offered "synergies" with adaptation measures, and this could turn into a "win-win" situation.

Why agriculture has been off the agenda

At the mitigation level, IFPRI's Gerald Nelson noted in a policy brief released ahead of the talks in Bonn: "It is much easier to monitor 1,500 US coal-fired power plants than several million smallholder farmers who rely on field, pasture and forest for their livelihoods."

''It is much easier to monitor 1,500 US coal-fired power plants than several million smallholder farmers who rely on field, pasture and forest for their livelihoods''
Rene Gommes, coordinator of the climate change and bio-energy division at FAO, said governments shied away from situations "where you need rubber boots and a shovel. We [FAO] are not a party [to the talks], but the governments are, and they do not raise it."

Agriculture is seen as difficult sector for climate change mitigation because of its sheer size, a FAO briefing paper commented. The attention of governments would be drawn more readily if it were easy to source funds for agriculture-based mitigation projects.

Forestry has also failed to source an adequate response from the financing mechanisms available in terms of the Kyoto Protocol, the global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This is because any mitigation project needs to meet stringent monitoring, evaluation, reporting, verification, and certification requirements under the protocol. "So how do you monitor and evaluate a subsistence farmer's small patch of land?" asked Nelson.

Industrialized countries can earn greenhouse gas emission reduction credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) by investing in projects that lower emission levels in developing countries.

CDM is one of three options offered by the Kyoto Protocol to meet the emission reduction targets of industrialized countries, which are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least five percent against a 1990 baseline in the Protocol's first commitment phase, which expires in 2012.

Photo: Christine Jayasinghe/IRIN
Farmers such as R. M. Vimalawathi in northwestern Sri Lanka who is experimenting with hardy rice varieties that will withstand the high salinity of the soil caused by reduced rainfall need more help to adapt
The idea behind the CDM was that it would allow industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more cheaply by financing emission reduction projects in developing countries, where costs are lower. The carbon credits earned can be traded.

“Current global funding arrangements, like the CDM, are inadequate and not providing sufficient incentives for farmers to get involved in climate change mitigation and adaptation," said Alexander Mueller, FAO Assistant Director-General.

"For example, soil carbon sequestration [retaining carbon in soil], through which nearly 90 percent of agriculture's climate change mitigation potential could be realized, is outside the scope of the [CDM]," he added.

Hill acknowledged that this was true, and pointed out that more investment and research had gone into another initiative known as REDD, or Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, which would provide funds as an incentive to preserve forests and cut high rates of tropical deforestation.

Can mitigate

"Agricultural land is able to store and sequester carbon. Farmers that live off the land, particularly in poor countries, should therefore be involved in carbon sequestration to mitigate the impact of climate change," said Alexander Mueller, FAO Assistant Director-General told delegates in Bonn.

Simple changes in agricultural technologies and management practices could reduce emissions by retaining carbon in the soil, as noted in several briefing papers by Nelson and FAO:

• Crop rotations, including plants that have deep root systems, increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil. 
• Cultivation systems that leave residues and reduce tillage, especially deep tillage, encourage the build-up of soil carbon. 
• Changing land use from annual crops to perennial crops, pasture, and agro-forestry increases both above- and below-ground carbon stocks. 
• Changes in crop genetics and the management of irrigation, fertilizer use, and soils can reduce both nitrous oxide and methane emissions. 
• Changes in livestock species and improved feeding practices can also cut methane emissions.

Good adaptation will help mitigation and vice versa

Both FAO and IFPRI argue that changes in agricultural management systems to make them more resilient to climate change would also increase carbon sequestration: 

''The operating assumption seems to be that national governments will handle everything on the adaptation side, and they might be missing a trick as a result''
• Conservation tillage increases soil-water retention during drought, while also sequestering carbon below ground. 
• Small-scale irrigation facilities not only conserve water in the face of greater variability, but also increase crop productivity and soil carbon. 
• Agro-forestry systems increase above- and below-ground carbon storage, while also increasing water storage below ground, even in extreme climate events. 
• Properly managed rangelands can cope better with drought and sequester significant amounts of carbon.

Small-scale farmers can meet mitigation requirements

Nelson argues that modern food supply chains, in which big supermarkets in Europe often source organic produce from small-scale farmers in developing countries, could be used as a way of teaching them to meet stringent verification requirements.

According to FAO, product standards and labels could be developed to certify the mitigation impact of agricultural goods.

Nelson cites the case of almost 10,000 farmers in the highlands of Madagascar, mentioned in a FAO annual report, who supply mostly hand-picked fine French beans to supermarkets in Europe, where they fetch a price up to three times higher than more industrially produced French beans.

The firm that contracts with the farmers and exports the produce is obliged to meet the high quality and ethical standards required by European buyers.

The small farmers in turn receive assistance and supervision programmes to fulfil the complex quality requirements and phytosanitary standards.

This has enabled the farmers to learn how to make compost, the benefit of which has spilled over to other crops. "Besides, composting may also have beneficial impacts on carbon sequestration, and on water quality and quantity," Nelson commented.

Carbon markets provide strong incentives for public and private carbon funds in developed countries to buy agriculture-related emission reductions from developing countries, and could provide important investments to spur rural development and sustainable agriculture in developing countries, Mueller said.

Hill said there was a need to involve multilateral organizations like FAO in discussions about the 'comprehensive adaptation framework' to ensure that transnational, global goods, such as improved seeds, could be addressed by agencies that have the capacity.

"The operating assumption seems to be that national governments will handle everything on the adaptation side, and they might be missing a trick as a result,” he said.

"At the same time, the FAO and other multilaterals have a seat at the table as observers, and certainly have the power to make their views heard within the negotiations."



Hear our Voices

Nassamu Malan, “This year is also looking bad”

Climate change Q & A

What climate change does

How climate change works

What we are doing about climate change
Links and References

2011 Disasters in numbers
Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)
International Institute for Sustainable Development
International Institute for Environment and Development
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
World Meteorological Organisation
NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
In-Depth Feedback
IRIN welcomes feedback. Send your messages to feedback.