Agriculture walks the tightrope in Copenhagen


At the massive global climate meeting taking place this week in Copenhagen, agriculture has played a largely secondary role. Negotiators seem most eager to put off the tough questions on agriculture until next year (see IATP’s Anne Laure Constantin’s report). But at a conference a short distance from the Bella Center (where the climate talks are taking place) agriculture was on everyone’s lips. And the results were both encouraging and troubling. 

Agriculture Day was organized by a host of international agriculture research, aid and farm organizations (see the list). The idea was to establish a consensus on how agriculture should be incorporated into the global climate talks.

There certainly was a consensus on a few things: 1) agriculture faces severe challenges due to climate change; 2) countries in the global south, particularly Africa, will be more severely affected; 3) there needs to be additional money (not simply shifting money) to help farmers, particularly small-scale farmers and women, adapt to climate change; 4) there needs to be more money for research and extension systems on adaptability and assessing mitigation efforts such as sequestration; 5) agriculture needs to be part of the solution to climate change; and finally, 6) the global food crisis and rural development issues are intricately linked. As the World Bank’s Juergen Voegele said, “agriculture is where poverty reduction, food security and climate intersect.”

But two big differences emerged that will largely define the debate on agriculture and climate change in the next year. One was whether a carbon market, with offsets for agriculture, would actually benefit farmers. Complications are certainly scientific (can we effectively measure practices that sequester carbon, and at differing scales of production?), but also economic (who will really make the money here? Will it be speculators and the carbon aggregators buying and selling credits, or farmers on the ground?). Unfortunately, it seemed a lot of participants assumed that a cap-and-trade system was the best way to involve agriculture. IATP’s Julia Olmstead outlines other options in her analysis of U.S. climate policy.

The second big difference had to do with the type of investments and priorities that should be made in agriculture within climate policy. There was an emphasis on new technology-primarily genetically engineered seeds and some for nanotechnology. “Traditional breeding is not going to be enough,” said Gordon Conway, of Imperial College London and one of the leading proponents of the Green Revolution. This sentiment was pushed by nearly all the presenters-from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to Dr. Adel El-Beltagy of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) to representatives from CropLife and Bayer. The arguments were familiar: new GE crops will help farmers manage risk brought on by climate change (such as water and temperature variations and increased pests and weeds), and help mitigate climate change through a reduction in nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide use.

The other side of the coin was a call for more diverse cropping systems. There was a recognition that farmers need to become more adaptable-growing multiple crops with multiple varieties under changing conditions. Farming regions will be affected differently around the world so solutions need to be flexible and fit the need of each community (exactly the kind of diverse approach not suited for GE seeds). A speaker from Senegal echoed the findings of a recent global report that IATP contributed to emphasize the need to better utilize traditional knowledge to strengthen resilience and mitigate climate change. A representative from Nairobi talked about how our current systems have become too vulnerable to weather events-we have always had severe weather, but we are less able to adapt. Instead, we need to focus on resilience through diversity. Another researcher working in Africa emphasized the need to invest in roads, infrastructure and credit.

It is expected that over the next few days Copenhagen will create a plan for agriculture that will carry through next year. These two questions will be at the heart of the debate: Who will really benefit from how agriculture is treated within climate policy? And what type of agriculture will be promoted as a response?