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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

 

The Bees' Burden

Publication | April 16, 2014 at 7:30

This study reports concentrations of pesticides found in pollen brought back to hives by foraging bees, and sampled using pollen traps or direct from the comb. This is one of the most extensive studies of pesticides in bee-collected pollen...

Dripping Poison

Publication | December 16, 2013 at 8:30

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has carried out reviews of the neonicotinoid pesticides thiamethoxam, imidacloprid and clothianidin in order to assess the possible risks posed by these systemic insecticides to bees.

Golden Illusion

Publication | October 17, 2013 at 17:53

GE 'Golden' rice is a genetically engineered (GE, also called genetically modified, GM) rice variety developed by the biotech industry to produce pro-vitamin A (beta-carotene). Proponents portray GE 'Golden' rice as a technical, quick-fix solut...

Bees in Decline

Publication | April 9, 2013 at 5:30

Honeybees and wild pollinators play a crucial role in agriculture and food production. However, the current chemical-intensive agriculture model is threatening both, and thereby putting food supply at risk

Ecological Livestock

Publication | February 12, 2013 at 11:41

Options for reducing livestock production and consumption to fit within ecological limits, with a focus in Europe.

Glyphosate-tolerant crops in the EU

Publication | October 30, 2012 at 14:51

Renowned agricultural economist Dr. Charles Benbrook was commissioned by Greenpeace International to make the first ever forecast of how Europe would be impacted by the authorisation of the cultivation of herbicide-tolerant, genetically-engineered...

Herbicide tolerance and GM crops

Publication | June 30, 2011 at 6:00

The widespread and increasingly intensive use of glyphosate in association with the use of GM (genetically modified) crops poses further risks to the environment and human health.

Genetically Engineered Maize: The Reality Behind the Myths

Publication | March 1, 2011 at 14:06

Currently the world’s big agrochemical firms that produce GE seeds – notably Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta - are investing millions of dollars every year to promote so-called benefits of the use of their GE technology. But the truth is that many...

'Golden' rice's lack of lustre

Publication | November 9, 2010 at 2:00

'Golden' rice has been in development for almost 20 years and has still not made any impact on the prevalence of VAD (vitamin A deficiency). Not only has it failed to have any impact on VAD while using money and resources that could have been...

Thai Rice Industry at Risk

Publication | October 12, 2010 at 9:46

Thailand is the largest exporter of rice in the world, and the Thai rice industry is therefore heavily dependent on the perceptions of its export customers. An unintended release of GE rice would disrupt Thailand’s rice grain merchandising...

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