Climate Change

Food and Agriculture’s Climate Footprint

Greenhouse gas emissions from primary agriculture contribute up to 12% of the total annual global emissions. If one includes land use changes and deforestation driven by the increased consumption of meat and dairy products, this figure can be closer to 18 or 20%. These figures do not include greenhouse gases released by machinery on farms or emissions released by the processing, transport and storage of foods and agricultural products around the globe, so the climate impact of our food system is even greater. From a global perspective, livestock production is responsible for nearly 80% of all agricultural related emissions.

In Canada

Direct agricultural greenhouse gases amounted to 62,000 kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2006 or approximately 9% of Canada’s total. The calculation (see figure 1) includes releases of nitrous oxide and methane from manure, livestock and agricultural fields but not the GHG emissions generated by machinery used on farms or those generated from the manufacturing, transporting or marketing of food. It also does not include the emissions created by the manufacturing of the fertilizers and pesticides used for industrial agriculture. It is alarming that Canada’s GHG figure for primary agriculture has increased by 25% since 1990. See the Beyond Factory Farming Fact Sheet on Climate Change for the reason why.

The Statistics Canada report, Human Activity and the Environment investigated the impact of domestic food production on climate change at the household level. Domestic purchases of food and the energy required to manufacture, transport, and market the food resulted in the release of nearly 47,000 kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent. Almost one quarter of these food-related emissions came from the production of fresh and frozen meat, while another 20% was attributed to dairy products and eggs.

Issues at hand

In 2008 the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture developed principles of food security in times of climate change. The Commission warned that “industrial globalized agriculture contributes to and is vulnerable to climate change; genetically modified seeds and breeds are a false solution and dangerous diversion; and that industrial biofuels is a false solution and a new threat to food security.”

The Commission’s manifesto counters the industrial model by calling for: * ecological and organic farming;

  • a transition to local and sustainable food systems;

  • the transition of knowledge that supports a post-industrial food system;

  • the increase of water conservation farming techniques; and

  • global economic trading rules that favour local economies.

All these changes will in turn will make agriculture mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, provide other co-benefits to the environment as well as to people’s health and will increase biodiversity, thus reducing vulnerability by increasing resilience.

However as nations enter into new post-Kyoto negotiations, many observers fear that the agricultural solutions offered to counter climate change may in fact cause more problems than they solve. A report, Agriculture and climate change: Real problems, false solutions issued by a coalition of international organizations released in September 2009 reveals that certain “United States Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) approved methodologies actually help subsidize and legitimize intensive industrial pig farms and plantations.” The coalition warns against the use of biochar for soil sequestration, no-till agriculture which will increase the use of GM crops and pesticides, and the conversion of marginal lands into new agricultural acreage.

For further reading:

Small Farmers Can Cool the World The October 2009 issue of Seedling Magazine is devoted to the climate crisis

Pathways to Resilience: Smallholder Farmers and the Future of Agriculture November 2008 discussion paper by the Canadian Food Security Policy Group

Cool Farming: climate impacts of agriculture and mitigation potential GreenPeace International

Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options UNFAO 2008

International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development

Low Greenhouse Gas Agriculture: Mitigation and adaptation potential of sustainable farming systems June 2009 FAO

The climate crisis is a food crisis- Small farmers can cool the planet, a power point presentation on agriculture and climate change produced by Grain in October 2009.

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