Stop agriculture from killing the climate

Feature story - 8 January, 2008
Industrial agriculture is killing the climate. But it is possible to turn this key source of greenhouse gas emissions into a carbon sink, our new report 'Cool Farming: Climate impacts of agriculture and mitigation potential' reveals.

An aerial view shows hotspots of forest fires in the Riau region. Palm oil companies are clearing forest and peatlands with fires in preparation for oil palm plantations.

Farming is responsible for an estimated 8.5-16.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 17-32 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

The overuse of fertilisers, dependence on pesticides, land clearing, soil degradation, and intensive animal farming lie at the heart of the problem.

Using too much fertiliser accounts for the highest single share of agriculture's direct emissions, currently equal to some 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, and results in the emission of nitrous oxide, which is some 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide in changing the climate.

The second biggest direct emitter is animals. Cattle and sheep in particular, produce large amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane when digesting; levels are increasing as a result of the growing demand for meat. Each kilogramme of beef produced results in 13 kilos of carbon emission; for lamb each kilo produces 17 kilos of emissions.

It is not only these direct effects that contribute to climate change. Cutting down forests and other natural cover to make way for agricultural land for grazing, growing animal feed and other crops, removes vital carbon sinks so increasing global warming. Over the past 20 years, more than 300 million hectares of tropical forests, an area nearly as big as India, has been destroyed largely for intensive animal farming, or palm oil for biofuel production.

What can be done?

Governments need to reject the current model of energy- and chemically-intensive farming that characterises industrial agriculture and replace it with farming that works both with nature and the needs of local communities.

By reducing the use of fertilisers, protecting soil and biodiversity, improving rice production and cutting demand for meat, especially in developed countries, the devastating effects of agriculture on the climate can be reversed.

Farmers need to be encouraged to use less fertiliser with more precision, and given support to convert to modern, ecological farming methods. Measures must be adopted which enrich soil, such as using cover crops when fields are not in use, to stop it from being leached of all nutrients. Traditional practices and local seed varieties need to be championed in favour of such costly and environmentally damaging options as genetically engineered organisms.

Reduction of methane produced by rice, one of the world's staple foods, is vital. It can be achieved by using less water and fertiliser without sacrificing yield. And slash demand for meat.

All this is possible without putting feeding the world at risk. Governments and international institutions have the means to stop agriculture from killing the climate now.

Read the summary of the report and the full version.

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