Scientists urge countries to adopt ‘climate-smart’ agriculture

Agricultural experts, frustrated with the slow progress on food security issues in climate talks, have called on scientists to aggressively promote rapid, global action on sustainable agriculture.

In the wake of limited success on international agriculture-related climate policy at December’s United Nations climate talks in Durban, scientists writing in the 20 January issue of Science magazine urged their peers to give policy-makers the scientific evidence needed to implement effective policies on agriculture and food security.

The scientists argued for policies that would not only ensure more efficient and environmentally friendly agricultural methods, but also stop the large-scale food wastage that occurs in both developing and wealthy countries.

Such policies would include convincing wealthier countries to reduce food waste and improve health at the same time by promoting healthier, less wasteful purchasing and eating habits. The policies would also entail an overhaul of inefficient distribution systems to reduce food spoilage and unnecessary carbon emissions.

“Scientists have a responsibility to show decision makers what we mean by ‘climate-smart agriculture’ and ‘sustainable intensification,’ and how these strategies are crucial to the success of any global climate change adaptation and mitigation effort,” said Dr Adrián Fernández Bremauntz in a statement. Dr Fernandez is sustainability advisor at the Metropolitan University in Mexico and one of the writers of the article, entitled “What Next for Agriculture After Durban?”

Agriculture has been identified by scientists as both a significant contributor to global warming and a sector that is likely to experience severe impacts from climate change. Those impacts include increased floods and droughts, soil degradation, water shortages and possible increases in destructive pests and diseases.

Dr Fernández and several other authors of the article served on the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, which presented a set of seven policy recommendations in Durban at an event on agriculture and rural development.

The recommendations from the commission included integrating food security and sustainable agriculture into global and national policies, a substantial increase in global investment in sustainable agriculture and a rapid rise in production levels with reduced negative environmental impacts.

The commission also advised policy-makers to target the people and places most vulnerable to climate change and food insecurity through initiatives such as funds for disaster-stricken areas.

To help policy-makers implement effective policies, the commission called for the establishment of transparent global systems for sharing information on sustainable agriculture and food systems.

While the Science article’s authors acknowledged some progress at the Durban talks – such as the gathering of evidence for evaluation by UN scientists by March, they note that the pace is not nearly fast enough to cope with the rising threats of food insecurity.

“The window of opportunity to avert a humanitarian, environmental and climate crisis is rapidly closing and we need better information and tools for managing tradeoffs in how we grow our food and use our resources,” said Professor Molly Jahn of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who also contributed to the article.

This improved information will begin with the scientists targeted by the Science article, who have been urged to ‘lay the groundwork for more decisive action’ when the world’s leaders meet at the United Nations Rio+20 environment summit in Brazil in June.

Another signatory of the article, Professor Bob Scholes of South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said, “There are clearly major opportunities this year for scientists to provide the evidence required to rapidly generate new investments and policies.”

He added that those investments and policies can ensure that the agricultural sector both adapts to climate change impacts and reduces the greenhouse gas emissions it produces.

The agricultural sector is threatened by more than climate change, note scientists.

In recent months, researchers have been warning that farming suffers from what Sir John identified in his Durban presentation as ‘three lost decades of agricultural research’, which have led to unsustainable farming practices that threaten global food security and natural resources.

He noted that in less than 15 years the global food system will be expected to feed an additional one billion people.

But scientists are warning that not only will the agricultural sector struggle to increase the amount of food it produces; it may face a decline due to widespread degradation of farmland.

According to the commission, the world loses an estimated 12 million hectares of agricultural and to degradation each year.

A study published last August by the UN Environment Programme found that current agricultural trends are destroying the world’s natural resources, particularly its water supplies.  Reversing this trend would require integrated land-use planning that coordinates decision-making for farming, biodiversity, water management and air pollution, according to the study.

Another report from the UN – its latest World Economic and Social Survey, found that to stop deteriorating land conditions and depleting natural resources, the world would have to move away from large-scale, intensive agricultural systems as they exist today. Instead, smaller scale farms in developing countries should be improved and expanded using ‘green’ technology that minimised the use of water, energy and chemicals, noted the report.

Asia’s developing countries have a number of projects underway to address sustainable agriculture.

Online news provider Manila Bulletin reported earlier this month that the secretary of the Philippines Department of Agriculture, Proceso J. Alcala, had ordered that climate change adaptation measures be integrated into all departmental programmes and projects this year.

And in Vietnam, where according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation more than half of the labour force works in agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Planning is drafting a new national agricultural strategy. The strategy is aimed at reducing emissions from agriculture by two per cent, as well as improving agricultural productivity and its economic benefits for the rural poor.

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture had advocated for initiatives such as these to be supported and informed by internationally integrated efforts and policies.

“Policy makers and scientists need to work together, quickly, to chart a course toward a sustainable global food system,” said the UK’s Sir John Beddington.

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