Negotiating Hunger: Agriculture and the UN Climate Talks

By Chase Sova.

Twenty years ago, negotiators from around the world came together in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The goal: to identify global principles for agricultural exchange. Export subsidies in the late ‘80s from industrialized economies like the United States resulted in the dumping of cheap agricultural products in developing countries, undermining local producers. These and other trends fueled efforts to correct growing inequalities in an increasingly globalized food system. Yet given food security’s central role in national security and an evolving belief in food security as a fundamental human right, an agreement on agriculture was slow to be reached.

Today, the world has come together again, and while the conversation has shifted toward the urgent need to tackle climate change, the same agricultural challenges remain.  Nearly 1 billion people across the world are food insecure or undernourished; populations continue to grow in sub-Saharan African (SSA) and South Asia; and food systems face severe impacts from a world that, on its current trajectory, is likely to be four degrees warmer than present averages.  At the Lima climate negotiations, however, the collective answer to the ‘agricultural question’ was, yet again, to avoid it altogether.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is tasked with bringing about a new global green house gas (GHG) emissions reduction treaty that will, in effect, take the place of the existing Kyoto Protocol (albeit with a five-year gap between the end of Kyoto and the beginning of a new commitment). Negotiators at the Conference of the Parties (COP)—the decision making body of the UNFCCC, which met in December 2014 in Lima—have until late 2015 at COP 21 in Paris to agree on the content of that agreement.  At present, after 20 such global negotiations and to the dismay of a growing body of scientists and farmers, agriculture is not accounted for in the existing Kyoto and draft ‘Paris text’.


Farmers, indigenous people and other stakeholders discuss crucial agricultural issues in Lima, Peru, G. Betancourt (CIAT)

The agricultural sector is made up of some 500 million small-scale, subsistence producers globally and contributes to nearly 30 percent of GHG emissions, when land use change associated with deforestation is taken into account. And the agricultural sector is the single largest emitter of potent non-CO2 GHGs like nitrous oxide and methane. When we plow fields, we release carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere.  Similarly, raising livestock to keep pace with growing global demand for meat releases methane (around 15 percent of global emissions), an especially powerful greenhouse gas. Curbing emissions from the agricultural sector can drastically reduce global GHG emissions. In other words, those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (small-scale farmers) will be responsible for a sizeable part of the solution.  

Yet this is precisely the equity issue at stake within the UNFCCC: bringing agriculture into a binding emissions agreement, opponents argue, would place disproportionate stress on the developing world and agriculture-based economies.  In emerging economies, agriculture claims a proportionally larger share of total GDP than in industrial countries, and the sector employs a greater percentage of the labor force. Agriculture accounts for a little over one percent of GDP in the United States, for example, whereas in some sub-Saharan African countries the sector accounts for between 25 to 60 percent of GDP and employs up to 80 percent of the population. A Paris agreement is likely to do away with our traditional understanding of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and call on all countries to contribute to emissions reductions, legally binding or otherwise. Can we ask emerging economies that have made comparably small contributions to historical GHG emissions to make potentially major changes to their agricultural practices, and by extension, their growth model?

To some, the answer lies in identifying sustainable agricultural practices that are more productive than current practices and at the same time reduce GHG emissions and prepare farmers in developing countries to adapt to the changing climatic conditions that we’re already committed to as a planet. This is Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA). Agroforestry (planting trees among crops and vice-versa), alternate wetting and drying (AWD) of rice paddies instead of continuous flooding, and herbicide tolerant seed varieties that reduce the need for tillage are just a few examples of CSA strategies ready for scaling up right now. When developing and industrialized countries alike are asked to make their emissions reductions contributions in Paris next year, CSA strategies like these may offer developing countries an attractive entry point and a seat at the negotiating table.


Edward Ouko's climate-smart farm site in Western Kenya, C. Schubert (CCAFS)

Whether we get the incentives right or not before Paris this year, the current generation of farmers (and consumers!) will, regardless, face two stark realities: the need to produce 70 percent more food to feed a growing population of nine billion by the year 2050, and the need to do so in climatic conditions never before faced.  If for no other reason than to protect your own plate, agriculture’s evolving role in UNFCCC negotiations is worth following closely.


Chase Sova is a DPhil student at the Environmental Change Institute

Photo of climate smart agriculture in Nyando, Kenya by  S.Kilungu (CCAFS) 

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