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Farmers Are in the Business of Managing Carbon

Posted on 12 December 2009 by editor

Credit: Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies

Credit: Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies

By Terna Gyuse

COPENHAGEN (IPS/TerraViva) – There’s a satisfying beauty to this phrase: “Productivity in perpetuity, without ecological harm.”

Professor M.S. Swaminathan, the celebrated giant of agricultural research from India, offered these words early on in a day devoted to farmers and sustainable food security here at the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Life Sciences.

This important side meeting of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change had two clear objectives: to build consensus on what needs to be done to incorporate agriculture into the post-Copenhagen climate agenda, and to discuss strategies and action to address adaptation and mitigation in the agriculture sector.

The problem is straightforward. The world needs food production to more than double by 2050 to feed a growing population; a changing climate threatens to send agricultural output in the opposite direction, quickly adding to the billion people who already live with chronic hunger.

Agricultural activities contribute to greenhouse gas emissions directly and indirectly; yet farmers could be an important part of the solution.

This is the backdrop against which farmers, scientists, policy-makers and activists met to discuss agriculture and rural development.

A key thread running from the keynote speakers through panelists and contributions from the floor was the idea that agriculture is where poverty reduction, food security and climate change intersect.

Yet Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, reminded participants that development assistance and support for agriculture have for so long declined while demand has risen. But Nwanze sees renewed interest in funding rural development by donors in the North and a fresh focus on agriculture by governments in the South, as the impending danger to political instability and food security becomes clearer.

“For each one degree rise in temperature, the wheat yield in India will be six million tonnes less,” said Swaminathan, a loss equivalent to 1.5 billion dollars. Without effective adaptation, 44 percent of agricultural productivity could be lost.

Swaminathan, who was instrumental in developing and introducing high-yielding varieties of wheat in India, spoke of the importance of anticipatory research to counter this – conserving seeds to ensure the genetic resources needed for resilient crops are not lost, and studying and improving our knowledge of growing food in coastal regions vulnerable to influxes of salt water.

Gordon Conway, professor of international development at Imperial College, London says the drivers of global warming are still ill-understood.

It’s not that there’s doubt that there will be significant changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, it’s that researchers still do not know precisely how, for example, the El Niño/La Niña ocean current, monsoons, and changing tropical convection patterns interact to affect temperature and rainfall patterns.

Conway said we need to downscale global predictions of climate models to local levels in order to guide appropriate action. “We need projections of weather variables that mean something to farmers,” not just climatologists, such as “‘the first rains, how many days will they last?’”

That information would allow scientists, governments and farmers themselves to develop appropriately resilient crops, as well as livestock and farming systems suited to new conditions, and to set up and manage water resources better.

Lindiwe Sibanda, director of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Advocacy Network based in South Africa, underlined the central importance of involving farmers in finding solutions. She called for an increase in locally-generated research, and the effective communication of findings and recommendations to farmers themselves.

Speaking from the floor of one session, a farmer from southern Ontario said simply, “Farmers are in the business of managing carbon.” For thousands of years, farmers have bred crop varieties to suit an incredible range of environments; the food on our table comes to us all through their hands.

“We may be 14 percent of the problem,” he said, referring to agriculture’s contribution to total carbon emissions, “but we could be 25 percent of the solution.”

A range of ways to enable this transformation were put forward for consideration in a consolidated statement that the people gathered here will present at a side event at the Bella Center, the main conference venue, on Dec. 14.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientist spoke of the need to properly synthesize the vast body of knowledge that already exists to practically understand ways forward; simple and effective tools with which to measure carbon stored in agricultural activities.

There were arguments in favour of focusing on farmers in the global South, as well as calls to remember that farmers everywhere are challenged by climate change.

Conway invoked what he said was Chinese president Hu Jintao’s maxim on agricultural development: “Try something. If it doesn’t work, forget it. If it does work, try it again on a bigger scale.”

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