Agriculture and Climate Change

Agriculture and Climate Change


Agriculture is an essential component of societal well-being and it occupies 40 percent of the land surface, consumes 70 percent of global water resources and manages biodiversity at genetic, species and ecosystem levels. At every point of production, agriculture influences and is influenced by ecosystems, biodiversity, climate and the economy, including energy trade. Modern agriculture is a fossil fuel energy-intensive industry and its development is tightly linked to energy factors.

While the successes in agriculture production over the last half decade are heralded, the inequitable benefits and unsustainable impacts on natural resources are becoming more evident.

Undoubtedly, the acceleration of environmental degradation and climate change has direct effects on agricultural productivity and food security.



The Challenge

There is no global challenge facing humanity that is more important than managing the earth’s environment to assure that it can sustain life in all its forms. The ecological balance on which current and future generations depend can only be preserved through food chains that balance energy and nutrient flows. The challenge is to balance the competing demands of different users of the same resources and of managing the resources to optimise the benefits to be derived on a sustainable basis.

Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history. Between 1960 and 2000, the demand for ecosystem services grew significantly as the world population doubled to 6 billion people and the global economy increased more than six fold. To meet these growing demands, food production increased by roughly two-and-a half times, water use doubled, wood harvests for pulp and paper production tripled and timber production increased by more than half.

Approximately 60 percent of our ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably, including: capture fisheries, water supply, waste treatment and detoxification, water purification, natural hazard protection, regulation of air quality, regulation of regional and local climate, regulation of erosion and aesthetic enjoyment. Degradation of ecosystems is likely to grow significantly worse over this century.

A series of recent assessments have indicated that the target of the World Food Summit to reduce the number of food insecure persons is not being met and that, despite the signing of major environmental agreements, carbon emissions continue to rise, species extinction is continuing anddesertification continues to be of great concern in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas.

With an increasing global population and overall purchasing power, more food calories are required while the availability of the necessary biotic and abiotic (nonliving) production factors is shrinking: land is being converted to non-food production systems, water resources are scarcer, and climate change plus shrinking biodiversity are threatening the viability of farming in various settings.

Today it is clear that there is no choice but to produce more with less, while deploying every effort to minimize production factors’ risks. This means that environmental sustainability in agriculture is no longer an option but an imperative.

In the future, climate change is expected to accelerate many pressures on the wild environment, as long-established production systems become destabilised and abiotic stress (such as water shortages, salinity, aridity and heat) are increased, always in the light of a growing demand for food. Furthermore, the expected increase of biofuel and bioplastic feedstock monoculture production may lead to increased rates of genetic erosion. These changes pose great challenges because biodiversity is the raw material that breeders use to create the new crop varieties that will be needed to safeguard biodiversity for food and agriculture for future generations as well as maintaining a broad gene pool, which ensures ecosystem resilience.


Climate Change

Using the results from formal economic models, the Stern Review estimates that in the absence of an effective counteraction, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5 percent of global GDP each year. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20 percent of GDP or more, with a disproportionate burden and increased risk of famine on the poorest countries. The costs of extreme weather events, including floods, droughtsand storms are already rising, including for developed countries. Without action, millions of people could become refugees as their homes and lands are hit by drought or flood.

Climatic factors like solar energy and water are essential to agricultural production as they constitute major environmental resources. World agriculture and forestry practices (e.g. conversion of wetlands to agriculture, deforestation, rice paddies, cattle feedlots, fertiliser use) today contribute about 25 percent to the emissions of greenhouse gases reduce carbon sinks and change hydrological cycles, thus exacerbating climate change effects. In turn, the increasing frequency of storms, drought and flooding has implications on the viability of agro-ecosystems and global food availability.

Agriculture and forestry can be part of the solution by contributing to climate change mitigation, through carbon conservation, sequestration and substitution, and establishing ecologically designed agricultural systems that can buffer extreme events. Through carbon sequestration, agriculture and forestry can also contribute to implementing the Kyoto Protocol.


Agriculture and Bioenergy

Energy markets have always influenced agricultural markets through the input side, as low or high energy prices affect the cost of fertilisers, pesticides and diesel. Relatively high petroleum prices in recent years and policy changes mandating increased use of liquid biofuels have made a number of agricultural products competitive sources of energy. It has stimulated investment in bioenergy, and has a direct impact on agricultural output prices, including those of several basic food commodities.

The increasingly strong link of agriculture to the quasi indefinite demand for energy is already resulting in price increases for agricultural commodities, namely sugar. Since 2004, oil and sugar prices have been moving up in tandem. As some countries started to shift out of sugar and into ethanol, thus reducing sugar exports during a period of deficit global supplies, sugar prices went up on the world market, enticing farmers in other countries to increase production of sugar (in substitution to other crops), thus causing an increase in prices in other crops as well.

Climate change issues are tightly linked with energy policies. There is an urgent need to assess the feasibility of selected bioenergy systems based on countries’ needs and resource endowments, to ensure food security is not compromised by fuel demands.



Global Action Is Required

There is a need to anticipate likely future changes and begin to shift production practices. (for example conservation tillage)


To be effective, planning that foresees major adjustments in agricultural production, for bio fuel and bio plastic feed stocks, must evaluate all consequences at global level, including phytosanitary risks such as pest introductions and invasive species propagation, as well as changing uses of genetic resources and synthetic agricultural inputs.

Policy makers, planners, researchers and operators must consider the larger energy economy that is now tied closely to agriculture. Energy efficiency of the total system, despite rapidly shifting prices, is an important goal. Farmers should be helped to adjust to changes on a short-term basis. On the longer term horizon, adaptation to climate change means rapid evolution of all agricultural and agro ecological options, technologies and decision tools.

(Material on this page is draws heavily on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Committee for Agriculture, April 2007



BIOPLASTICS: Instead of petroleum, bio renewable materials such as starch from corn or whey from cheese-making can be used to make plastics. Industry uses microbes or their enzymes to convert biomass to feed stocks — building blocks for biodegradable plastics, industrial solvents and specialty lubricants.

PHYTOSANITARY: the spread of pests and diseases amongst plants and animals.

AGROECOLOGY: is the science of sustainable agriculture; the methods of agroecology have as their goal achieving sustainability of agricultural systems balanced in all spheres. This includes the socio-economic and the ecological or environmental.

ABIOTIC: Nonliving, The abiotic factors of the environment include light, temperature, and atmospheric gases.