Agricultural production can be impacted by climate change. Some agricultural production systems cause high levels of greenhouse gas emissions; while other systems help build community resilience and allow farmers to adapt to climate change. Some Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) talk only about agriculture in the context of mitigation; many other NDCS however do point out the importance of adaptation approaches, and finance, for agriculture. This page provides ideas and guidance for your NDC about ‘high-ambition’ approaches to climate-adapted agriculture.
There are many ways to decrease emissions from the agriculture sector. Industrial agriculture has high emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs); and it can cause soil degradation and water pollution linked to the mass use of synthetic inputs (fertilizers and pesticides). Agriculture accounts for a quarter of global GHG emissions; if we add in all food systems then the figure rises to up to 37%.
A shift of agricultural resources toward export-oriented agricultural commodities like beef, soy, coffee and oil palm are leading drivers of deforestation globally. Agriculture is the biggest global driver of land-use change. What sets these sectors apart is that they also emit methane and nitrous oxide, gases that have a global warming potential respectively 25 and 298 times higher than carbon dioxide when compared over a 100 year time horizon, and even higher in the short term. So decreasing emissions of methane (NH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are important for mitigation.
A new report on reduced emissions from food system change — Enhancing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for Food Systems — identifies 16 different steps that can be taken at the national level to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production. The report points out that “no current national climate plans explicitly discuss more sustainable diets.” Another useful publication is CIDSE’s 2018 analysis of how food and energy systems much change to get onto 1.5 degree pathways:
Consumption and Diet
Consideration of the climate consequences of global food systems cannot be separated from an examination of consumption and dietary habits. A high ambition NDC for many countries should include analysis of national dietary habits, and in particular, consumption of meat and other livestock products. Subheading: Industrial agriculture and livestock industry as drivers of forests and biodiversity loss
Besides mitigation consideration, also adaptation, i.e. a transition towards livestock practices that build agricultural resilience and strengthen rural communities is a critical component of a global climate solution. Does your NDC include information about proposed changes in production of export-oriented commodities that are responsible for deforestation, or suggested changes in livestock production practices?
Industrial agriculture + livestock
Livestock use about 70% of global agricultural land, through feed and forage production (Van Zanten et al., 2018), with about 20% of global land surface devoted to grazing livestock, according to one estimate (Henderson et al., 2015). A study has shown that the 20 largest meat and dairy companies produce more GHGs than a country like Germany. If current levels of meat and dairy production are maintained, while other global emissions were reduced enough to keep to the 1.5°C goal, then by the year 2050, meat and dairy production would account for 81% of all GHG emissions! Such high levels of emissions make it clear that over-consuming countries can bring down their emissions by lowering per capita consumption of meat and dairy. “Many people in developed countries (and some in developing countries) eat more than they need, and sometimes much more than is healthy. This could be understood as a form of food waste (or more accurately, a waste of food). In some cases, consumption so far exceeds the requirements for a healthy person that it causes harm. Food waste from overconsumption may actually be greater than consumer waste of food that is left uneaten (Alexander et al., 2017)
A transition towards livestock practices that build agricultural resilience and strengthen rural communities is a critical component of a global climate solution. Does your NDC include information about proposed changes in production of export-oriented commodities that are responsible for deforestation, or suggested changes in livestock production practices?
Overconsumption + waste
Addressing overconsumption should be considered a climate priority as well as a health one. The emissions created to produce the food consumed beyond what is necessary for food security and health are properly seen as wasted resources. Reducing over-consumption thus presents an opportunity for emissions reductions. Ending overconsumption of food could reduce global GHG emissions by 11%.
“Nearly one billion people go hungry every day. Yet about 30% of all food produced is wasted or lost. Some estimates put that figure at close to 50%. Growing food that is wasted creates emissions and no nutritional benefit. Reducing food waste would mean that more people could be fed with less production, reducing GHG emissions from agriculture, and potentially freeing up land for ecosystems.
Increasing cold chain storage, improving storage techniques and infrastructure, packaging to improve ‘shelf-life’, and investing in more efficient transport systems can all help to reduce pre-consumer food losses. These interventions have their own ‘costs’ in terms of emissions, but generally the benefits of avoiding food loss outweigh the emissions associated with system improvements. Different interventions would be needed in developed countries, where food waste happens mostly at consumer and retail levels. Various scientists have estimated that reducing food waste by half would have significant climate benefits – as much as a 500 million tons of emission reductions annually.
The primary function of agroecology is to ensure food security by re-localizing production, stimulating local food systems and reducing the emissions associated with long-distance transport of crops. Agroecology generally has much lower levels of GHG emission due to the minimal use of external inputs.
Agroecology’s transformative potential for building resilience was reviewed by CLARA member Biovision in collaboration with the FAO. Biovision reviewed hundreds of papers about agroecology and climate change here. They also compiled this video on the relation between agroecology and climate resilience:
An overview of the history, definitions and a quick assessment tool to analyse agroecology can be found here.
The report by IAASTD – the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development – is an in-depth overview of why shifts to agroecology are needed and how they can be accomplished.
CLARA member ActionAid combines case studies with policy recommendations in their report on ‘Scaling Agroecology’.
CLARA member CIDSE compiled Principles of Agroecology that “support resilience and adaptation to climate change”, below. CIDSE also put together this Stories of Change video, an inspiring look at transformation towards more sustainable ways of producing and consuming food.
Emissions from Fertilizer Use
Nitrous oxide is a very powerful greenhouse gas. The largest source of nitrous oxide emissions is agriculture. Emissions primarily come from applying nitrogen fertilisers to crops as synthetic nitrogen or manure, the incomplete uptake of that nitrogen, and the conversion of some of the excess reactive nitrogen to nitrous oxide. Agroecological approaches emphasise recycling nutrients within agricultural systems, rather than adding exogenous synthetic nitrogen. Recycling nutrients and ensuring that nitrogen sources are applied when plants need them most can substantially reduce overall nitrous oxide emissions. Moreover, as nitrous oxide emissions are reduced, these approaches also build overall resilience in agricultural systems by enhancing soil health and fertility, increasing soil water-holding potential, and increasing the diversity of soil microflora and fauna.
On average around 50% of nitrogen applied to soils is not taken up by crops (Bodirsky et al., 2012; Davidson and Kanter, 2014; Erisman et al., 2008). Non-linear relationships between application rates and uptake mean that higher rates of synthetic nitrogen use result in more surplus nitrogen in the environment (Davidson and Kanter, 2014; Mueller et al., 2014; Shcherbak et al., 2014). Net anthropogenic emissions of nitrous oxide are currently approximately 5.3 Tg N2O-N/ year. Business as usual scenarios predict almost a doubling of anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions by 2050, to 9.7 Tg N2O-N (Davidson and Kanter, 2014).
Reducing nitrogen in the environment, and associated nitrous oxide emissions, requires reducing the quantities of nitrogen applied and/or increasing the efficiency with which plants take up nitrogen. The conventional strategies that are proposed to reduce emissions rely on increasing nitrogen use efficiency through the four Rs: right source, at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place (Mueller et al., 2014; Zhang et al., 2015). A number of authors point out that nitrogen use could be cut in half in intensive farming systems with little impact on productivity (Chen et al., 2011; Mueller et al., 2014; Muller et al., 2017; Zhang et al., 2015).
Agroecology-based strategies can lead to much more efficient use of nitrogen, and therefore significant reductions in emissions. Agroecology can not just reduce, but replace altogether, the use of synthetic fertilisers. This avoids emissions and energy use associated with production and distribution of synthetic fertilizers. Because of the significant emissions associated with fertiliser production (but accounted for in the energy chapters of the greenhouse gas inventories), there is a substantial additional mitigation potential from converting to agroecological production systems that minimize synthetic fertilizer use intensity or do not rely at all on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. For example, Muller et al. (2016) estimate that abandoning the use of synthetic fertilisers altogether in the EU would result in an 18% reduction in total agricultural emissions (total EU agriculture emissions in 2016 were 0.925 Gt CO2-eq).
Erisman et al., (2008) estimate that nitrogen use could be reduced by 40-60 Tg per year by improving nitrogen use efficiency. Bodirsky et al. (2014) propose that more efficient fertilisation (4 Rs) and increased use of biologically-derived nitrogen inputs like manure and crop residues could reduce field losses by 58 Tg Nr (0.69 Gt CO2e). Based on these publications we propose that potential reductions of 0.69 Gt CO2eq/year is a reasonable assumption for emission reduction based on more efficient use of fertilisers coupled with “better use of other N flows such as manure and legumes to reduce the total amount of synthetic fertiliser needed” (Griscom et al., 2017, p. 64). As we note above, this is a low estimate as it does not include emission reductions from less fertiliser production. Reducing the production and use of synthetic fertilisers is one of three interconnecting pathways to cutting nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture. Additional livestock feeding, behaviour, and lifestyle changes could further reduce production and use of fertilisers, and therefore nitrous oxide emissions from the agriculture sector, while also improving food security and sovereignty. In the next two sections, we explicitly outline the emissions reductions that can be achieved through changes in livestock production practices, healthy diets, including less meat consumption, and limiting food waste.
Effective Adaptation Approaches
All NDCs should include information about adaptation. Adaptation and increased systemic resilience will be necessary to ensure food security. Food security in the face of climate change is a key goal of the Paris Agreement, and countries and communities urgently need support to deal with the multiple challenges ahead. Adapt to climate change, while building local resilience.
Our NDC should include agriculture strategies that are gender-sensitive, locally-appropriate and people-centered. Agroecological approaches that strengthen peasant farmers’ (particularly women farmers’) knowledge and control over resources offer major benefits for resilience to climate change. Diverse, local seed varieties can help farmers adapt to a range of climate conditions. Using compost, manure and mulch instead of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers helps plants to cope with late rains and drought by increasing the amount of organic matter and water in the soil. This approach also reduces runoff and erosion from heavy rainfall or flooding. Such techniques also allow farmers to reduce their reliance on purchased seed and emissions-intensive chemicals.
There is no one size fits-all solution to adaptation. Effective adaptation strategies must always be context-specific, according to each community’s location, topography, climate, biodiversity, local economy, culture, and diet. This level of specific detail is difficult to capture in an NDC; but in the best cases, the NDC will indicate the importance of using community-based adaptation strategies, based on local factors and local knowledge. The NDC should provide consultative mechanisms that can build on the experience, insights and knowledge of community members who are at risk from climate impacts. Strategies to build the capacities and opportunity for vulnerable communities – especially women – to participate in development of adaptation plans, will increase the effectiveness of adaptation processes.
Agroecological techniques allow for crop adaptation and increased resilience. This includes the economic resilience of populations. Economic diversification also guards against extreme climatic shocks and strengthens food security; if one particular crop’s yields suffer from a drought, farmers can guarantee food production by relying on other, more resilient crops.
Agroecology strengthens smallholders’ autonomy by strengthening their capacity to lift themselves out of poverty. It promotes quality and diversified agricultural production, embedded in a territory, its natural resources, climate, ecosystem as well as the knowledge of local populations. As such, smallholders are not forced to depend on expensive external provisions, be it inputs, seeds or even contract farming.
A study from the FAO shows that almost all developing countries have proposed adaptation actions in agriculture in the first iteration of their NDCs. Nevertheless, these initial contributions often do not specify what type of agricultural model will be prioritised. NDCs should include agroecological policies focused on adaptation and highlighting the mitigation co-benefits. Even if specific agroecological programs aren’t spelled out in the NDC, it’s important that the NDC talks about agroecological approaches, adapting to local circumstances, and consulting with local people. Adaptation strategies in the farm sector is one of the most important elements of a ‘high-ambition’ NDC. NDCs should lay out national food-system transitions toward agroecology, paying particular attention to small scale farmers. The NDC should aim to guarantee food security for the poorest, and preserving the environment for present and future generations. A holistic approach is essential to begin this transition.
The benefits of agroecology are becoming more widely known and shared at all levels, also among international donors. Mentioning agroecology in the NDC provides an entry point for potential funding through development banks and other bi or multilateral donors and gives a clear signal that integrated approaches are needed to address the climate change. The lack of an integrated policy approach to agroecology can slow the spread of these practices. The policy framework needs to go beyond approaches focused only on individual projects, isolated initiatives or selected practices. It will require reconsideration of our current system of industrial agriculture, and control by the dominant industrial agriculture stakeholders.
Soil Carbon Sequestration
Soil carbon sequestration on agricultural land has received much attention in climate science and policy circles (Frank et al., 2017; Paustian et al., 2016). There are many agronomic and climate adaptation reasons to increase the carbon content of soils. Increasing soil carbon can enhance resilience and adaptive capacity. Soil organic carbon (SOC) is associated with increased soil fertility and increased yields, thereby also increasing income for farmers. Soils richer in SOC have better infiltration capacity, can hold more moisture, and store it for longer periods of dryness (Gaudin et al., 2015; Kaye and Quemada, 2017). With better soil structure and greater organic matter content, soils hold more nutrients which improves the bioavailability of those nutrients.. All these properties increase the resilience of the farming system.
The sequestration of soil carbon is also considered important because of its mitigation potential. However, quantifying mitigation benefits from the sequestration of soil carbon is challenging and contentious. Increases in soil carbon may not be permanent, and increases in soil carbon can’t go on forever. The soil carbon sink capacity is finite: there are limits to the total amount of carbon soils can sequester, as well as limits to the amount of carbon sequestered in any given time frame. Depleted soils might initially soak up carbon at a faster rate, but that rate diminishes over time until saturation. Agricultural practices that increase soil organic matter generally have a positive impact on carbon storage. However, how agricultural practices can contribute to carbon storage, or the release of soil carbon to the atmosphere, is not yet clearly understood.
For these reasons of reversibility and sink saturation, NDC claims about ‘increasing soil carbon’ as a goal should be evaluated carefully. It’s a good goal to increase carbon in agricultural soils; but the main value of soil carbon is for adaptation and resilience purposes, rather than the mitigation potential. And claims that soil carbon levels can be ‘monetized’, and become the basis for carbon credit trading systems – should also be examined critically.
In conclusion, sequestration options can “benefit the environment and make ecosystems more resilient to extreme climate events… Greenhouse Gas sequestration will never equal reducing emissions, since there is no way of guaranteeing the permanence and non-reversibility of sequestration. The aim is, therefore, to retain [soil] carbon sustainability; knowing that such sequestration is non-permanent” (CCFD-Terre Solidaire, 2018).
Land Titling and Security
Progress towards rights to land is also necessary and should be mentioned in NDCs. Land titling and security can take different forms depending on national legislation, local customary laws and past and future agrarian reforms. Demarcating indigenous territories is an important step towards an ecological use of territories. Obtaining land deeds and securing tenure rights are necessary to sustainably enrich the land and achieve sufficient quantity and quality of production.
The right to land is a prerequisite for the development of agroecology. Agroecological approaches may imply redistributive agrarian reform. The clarification of a Western concept of property rights is a possible solution, but it is not the only solution and historical factors specific to your national situation need to be taken into account. The dominant legal framework allows for individual, and sometimes for collective, land rights to be clarified. However, this approach also encourages investment; those who have the resources buy land, those who lack resources sell their land. Considering customary and collective practices and systems, whilst understanding and remedying the discrimination against certain groups, including women, in these systems. Governance models also need to be examined. The aim is to ensure that collective ownership and the social and cultural role of land and water are integrated into agrarian and land policies and reforms. See the webpage ‘Land Rights’ for more detailed information about rights-based approaches on agriculture and forestry can help build resilience and contribute to a high-ambition NDC.
What To Ask For
- Does your Nationally Determined Contribution discuss agroecology and agroecological production approaches?
- If agroecology is mentioned, is the socio-economic dimension also respected?
- Is the NDC promoting a rights-based approach?
- Is the agricultural section of the NDC built in a participatory manner?
- Does the NDC discuss what policies will be used to pursue agroecological transitions?
- Does the NDC include direct financing for farmer groups and agroecological solutions?
- Does the NDC address support systems for farmers, for example extension services and access to educational resources?
In 2019 the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the Committee on Food Security published a report on agroecological approaches.
Biovision and its partners note the importance of agroecology for addressing not only climate change, but achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) more broadly. Find their analysis here.
Climate Action Tracker published a useful guide to mitigating agricultural emissions while achieving food security, noting in particular the importance of diet change.
FAO, Biovision and WWF have launched an Informal Working Group on NDCs and Agroecology. “The objective of this Working Group is to serve as a discussion platform for policy actors that are interested or committed to promote and strengthen the inclusion of Agroecology in national implementation plans and actions based on the NDCs, National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and other national and international processes.” Register to join this group here.
- Industrial Livestock -- IATP
- Industrial Livestock – GFC
- Food Waste
- Biovision Report
- ActionAid Report
- IAASTD Report
- HLPE Report
- CCFD Report
- 100 Year Perspective