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Agriculture and Climate Change: Background

The Overview

A farmer gathers the remains of a dying corn plantation in Chiang Saen district along the bank of the Mekong River.

Some agricultural methods contribute to climate change, whereas other agricultural approaches help mitigate climate change and protect the environment.

Polluting-agriculture contributes to climate change. Polluting-agriculture practices include using synthetic-chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides, and planting monocultures— large areas of a single plant.

Ecological farming, in contrast, helps mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Ecological farming employs natural fertilizers; organic pest control; and biodiverse farming—mixing different plants and crop varieties in a given field .

The Challenges

Polluting-agriculture is a key source of carbon emissions. Specifically, this unhealthy form of agriculture creates roughly 14% of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. And in fact, polluting-agriculture is responsible for up to 32% of these greenhouse-gas emissions when we include deforestation caused by agricultural expansion.

Climate change also impacts agriculture. Rainfall, temperatures and farmers’ access to water are three main factors that can disrupt agriculture and ecosystems. It is almost certain that crop yields will decrease in warmer climates, where food is most scarce. Other consequences of climate change include increased outbreaks of insect infestation, as well as infestations spreading to new geographic areas (for example, the emergence of the European corn borer and the American bollworm in Europe).

Sources of Pollution

What, exactly, are the sources of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture? Apart from deforestation and other land-use changes, it is mainly synthetic fertilizers and livestock that emit nitrous oxide and methane, potent greenhouse gases.

Approximately half of agricultural emissions come from livestock and meat production. The average amount of fossil-fuel energy needed to produce calories in meat is roughly ten times higher than the energy needed to produce calories in plants.

The Trends

From 1990 to 2005, the world’s agricultural emissions increased by 17%. Scientists now project that, by 2080, emissions will again increase—this time by 35 to 60%. This would represent at least a doubling of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenpeace illustrates the climate effects of industrial farming by writing "N2O" in flames on a field.

How Ecological Farming Practices Can Help

Ecological farming adapts agriculture to climate change by bringing diversity back to farms and fields—and by protecting natural biodiversity. Ecological farming practices can mitigate up to 70% of all of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically:

  • Eliminating the overuse of fertilizers is one helpful practice. Improving cropland soil management is another.
  • Reducing synthetic fertilizer use and improving soil management help make the shift from polluting-agriculture to healthy, carbon-rich soil—the basis for a non-chemical, biodiverse and healthy agriculture.
  • Another way to reduce emissions is by improving water management in rice cultivation. The benefit is that drier organic matter does not produce as much methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Yet another of the many ways to decrease agricultural emissions is to stop the practice of burning crop residues—what remain of plants after the harvest. Instead, this material can be conserved—and returned to the soil.

Greenpeace believes that the future of agriculture is ecological farming. This ensures healthy farming and healthy food for today and tomorrow. Ecological farming practices protect soil, water and climate. They promote biodiversity. And they protect the environment from contamination by chemicals and genetic engineering.

The latest updates


Genetically Engineered Fish - New Threats to the Environment

Publication | 5 January, 2005 at 0:00

This briefing examines the development of genetically engineered (GE) fish, which could soon be produced on a commercial scale.

Genetically Engineered Rice: Not Sustainable Agriculture

Publication | 1 October, 2004 at 0:00

The genetic industry is trying to commercialise genetically engineered (GE, sometimes called genetically modified, GM, or transgenic) rice because they believe GE rice will open the Asian engineering market to other GE crops (Brookes and Barfoot...

Rice at Risk: Will there be a choice with GE Rice?

Publication | 1 October, 2004 at 0:00

Proponents of genetic engineering argue that "co-existence" of genetically engineered (GE, sometimes called genetic modified, GM or transgenic) and non-GE rice is possible.They argue that countries, and even neighbouring farmers, will be able to...

The European Union's new labelling rules for genetically engineered food and feed

Publication | 16 June, 2004 at 0:00

The European Union implemented new labelling and traceability legislation for genetically modified food, feed and ingredients in April 2004. They are the strictest world-wide. These new rules, which apply to the world's largest single market,...

No old GMOs in new Europe

Publication | 15 June, 2004 at 0:00

With the enlargement of the European Union a lot of things will change, but one will remain the same: the EU-wide permission for the 18 Gentically Modified Organisms (GMO)currently authorized within the EU. However, the area for which they are...

CEC findings on Maize contamination in Mexico

Publication | 15 June, 2004 at 0:00

This document outlines the Commission for Environmental Cooperation's (CEC) scientific findings on Maize contamination in Mexico produced on behalf of the indigenous and local communities in Oaxaca whose territories have been contaminated by...

Herbicide usage increases with herbicide tolerant genetically engineered plants

Publication | 15 June, 2004 at 0:00

After eight years of cultivation in the United States, a new evaluation on the impact of genetically engineered (GE) plants in agriculture shows dramatically increasing amounts of herbicides being used with herbicide tolerant GE crops. This...

Hanging in the balance: GE battle in Brazil

Publication | 15 June, 2004 at 0:00

Half the world's soya is now Genetically Engineered (GE), and for several years Brazil has been the only major soya exporting country with a ban on GE soya. Consumers in Brazil and in the major markets for Brazilian soya remain strongly opposed...

The true cost of gene patents

Publication | 15 June, 2004 at 0:00

The patenting of living organisms continues to be extremely controversial in Europe. Large sections of the general public and politicians continue to reject the patenting of genes and living organisms. This document outlines the social and...

GM and Dairy Cow Feed: Steps to a GM-free Future for the UK Dairy Industry

Publication | 13 May, 2004 at 0:00

GM and Dairy Cow Feed: Steps to a GM-free Future for the UK Dairy Industry illustrates how the UK dairy industry can be both GE-free and independent of imports in the future by growing protein-rich crops such as lupins for cattle feed.

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