Agriculture and Climate Change: Background
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 .
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.
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.