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Why is there no food on the table at the UN Climate Change Conference?

23 November 2015 Feature
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As governments, corporations and civil society organizations prepare for the United Nations' Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) November 30 - December 11, a major force behind global warming is still not on the agenda: the food system.

The devastating impact of climate change on food production has long been apparent, but the significant role of the food system in driving global warming has not been sufficiently emphasized or appreciated by governments and even many climate campaigners. This opens the way for corporate agribusiness, whose production methods are at the core of the food/climate nexus, to falsely present itself as part of the solution. And it marginalizes the important role that agricultural workers, together with small farmers, can potentially play in cooling the planet.

We know that rising temperatures impact directly on how food is produced. Extreme storms, droughts, desertification and shifting vegetation patterns, soil erosion and diminishing fresh water availability make food production more volatile and livelihoods more precarious.

But in 2006 the pioneering Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change identified agriculture and land use (principally agriculture and forestry) as directly responsible for 32 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - greater than any other single industry or sector. The Stern Review put industry and transport at 14 percent each - and agricultural inputs like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, whose production is extremely energy-intensive, fall under industry, not food, in this report. More recent studies show broadly similar results.

The force driving rising GHG emissions in agriculture is the expansion and intensification of high input, export-driven, fossil fuel-intensive monoculture production which externalizes costs, including the cost of climate change. Most of the deforestation which accounts for some 18% of GHG emissions is linked to the expansion of cash-crop monoculture farming. Soya and palm oil are the most notorious examples, but all large-scale monocultures by their nature contribute to the accumulation of warming gasses.

According to the Stern Review 'Fertilisers are the largest single source (38%) of emissions from agriculture. Agricultural emissions are expected to rise almost 30% in the period to 2020…. Around half of the projected growth in emissions is expected to come from the use of fertiliser on agricultural soils'. A 2014 study by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has enteric fermentation - methane produced by livestock as a byproduct of digestion - edging out fertilizer use with 39% of all GHG emissions in agriculture, but confirms that the application of synthetic fertilizers is the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in agriculture, having increased by 37% in the decade 2001-2011 alone. And the FAO identified a number of measures to significantly reduce methane emissions derived from livestock.

The breakdown of nitrogen fertilizers produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas whose climate-warming power is 296 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Run-off from nitrogen fertilizers is one of the driving forces of the algae-promoting eutrophication which depletes water of oxygen and kills plant and animal species in fresh waters and coastal areas. Water death in turn contributes to global warming.

Fertilizer production is extremely energy-intensive - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IOPCC) has estimated that fertilizer production alone accounts for up to 2 percent of global energy production. A recent article from Grain points out that  fertilizer production increasingly depends on natural gas from fracking, which releases into the atmosphere enormous quantities of methane, another greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

Pesticide manufacture accounts for up to 16% of the energy input into arable crops. As agrochemicals become more complex and more toxic in response to diminishing returns, the energy input in their production rises. The huge expansion of genetically modified crops - modified to resist the application of large quantities of pesticides - has contributed to a world-wide expansion in pesticide use, loss of biodiversity and the destruction of soil nutrients, driving a treadmill which increases dependence on chemicals including synthetic fertilizers.

The more intensive monoculture expands, the greater is the food system's vulnerability to climatic and biological shocks. These shocks have their greatest impact on the poor and the hungry - over half of whom are food producers: waged agricultural workers and small peasant farmers.

The technical basis for a transition to environmentally sustainable food production is available, accessible, and inexpensive. The alternative to energy-intensive, GHG-emitting monoculture is smaller-scale mixed farming: polyculture.

Sharp reductions in GHG emissions are immediately achievable through multicropping, mixed livestock/cereal production and rotational systems which use crops to control pests and inject nutrients back into soil, sharply reducing GHG emissions with equivalent or higher yields. Sustainable low-intensity input techniques enrich soil organic matter, preserve biodiversity, conserve top soil and water and with proper support can generate socially and environmentally sustainable rural employment.

According to the authoritative 2008 United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Sustainable Development (IAASTD) :
Agroecosystems of even the poorest societies have the potential through ecological agriculture and Integrated Pest Management to meet or significantly exceed yields produced by conventional methods, reduce the demand for land conversion for agriculture, restore ecosystem services (particularly water), reduce the use of and need for synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels, and the use of harsh insecticides and herbicides.

The barriers to transition are political, not technical. These techniques challenge the patent monopolies of the seed, pesticide and fertilizer giants which control the market for agricultural inputs as well as the power of global agribusiness and the global commodity traders and processors.

And as Grain observes, in the run-up to COP 21 "There is only one major intergovernmental initiative that has emerged to deal with climate change and agriculture - and it is controlled by the world's largest fertiliser companies": the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, launched last year at the United Nations (UN) Summit on Climate Change in New York. 'Climate Smart Agriculture' is corporate business as usual.

If agriculture is still not on the agenda at intergovernmental climate conclaves, it is because corporate agribusiness has succeeded in identifying the methods from which its profits derive with the production of food as such - a dangerous mystification which has to be challenged if the food system's role in climate change is to be addressed and reversed.

An important part of that challenge implies supporting the demands of agricultural workers for a safe living and working environment, for the elimination of toxic chemicals which poison their bodies and their lives, for potable water, for secure employment and a living wage. These demands are integral to the struggle for a sustainable, climate-friendly food system, as are the demands of small producers for access to land, water and political and financial support.

Temperature change of one degree Celsius attributable to human activity has been sufficient to melt 80% of Arctic ice since 1980. COP21 is unlikely to adopt and enforce measures to stem a further rise of 2% and more - unless we can organize more effectively. It's time to put the food system at the top of the agenda - not as a victim of global warming's collateral damage, but as a source of the problem and essential component of the solution.