Agriculture, the sector humans depend on the most, is also the sector most impacted by climate change. Pests and disease are spreading to new areas. Sea levels rise and contaminate fresh water sources. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, and cyclones are increasing in number and severity, destroying crops before harvest year after year. Increasing temperatures exacerbate desertification. But every continent, nation, ethnicity, indeed every farmer, has different crops, goals, values, and traditions associated with their land. How can this variability be united by a common scheme under the UNFCCC?
This week, agriculture events at COP 22 have focused on a new landuse management scheme that has the potential to achieve this goal: landscapes. Rather than making decisions based on a single parcel of land, landscape management takes into account the surrounding ecosystem in order to identify the best practices for the parcel. These best practices could include crop selection, soil and water management schemes, fallow techniques and plantings, buffer zones, and cooperative management techniques such as agroforestry. By tailoring agriculture techniques to the ecosystem, crops are more likely to be resilient to climate variability, less likely to require expensive inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and less likely to deplete resources. This technique also empowers indigenous and local communities because their traditional knowledge about the landscape often proves more applicable than modern intensive and chemical-laden agricultural techniques.
At a global climate action dialogue, UN officials, Agriculture Ministers, and NGOs discussed the potential consequences of using landscape management to address climate change. The first panel introduced ecosystem approaches for increased resilience. Jeff Seabright, Chief Sustainability Officer of Unilever, said that that landscape level approach has the potential to truly link agriculture and food security with sustainable development because it fundamentally incorporates an integrated approach. He pointed to the Africa Palm Oil Initiative and Global Agribusiness Alliance as examples of private initiatives to utilize this integrated approach. Farrukh Khan, Program Manager on Climate Finance in the Office of the UN Secretary General, recommended encouraging public-private partnerships to ensure all economic actors who make day-to-day decisions are part of the necessary change, and pointed to the UN’s A2R Initiative to use as a framework.
The second panel discussed integration across the landscape and “value chain” (i.e. the production and distribution chain). Craig Hanson, Global Director of Food, Forests, and Water at the World Resources Institute, identified three unused “levers” in the value chain that the world needs to take advantage of to achieve sustainable development in agriculture: (1) food loss; (2) livestock; and (3) restoration of degraded lands. On food loss, he observed that one-third of the food produced for human consumption is lost. He asked for parties to collaborate on a WRI initiative to build a $1 billion fund to address food loss. On livestock, he pointed out that technology to help reduce emissions exists, but it is currently too costly and poorly distributed. On restoration, he advised that by restoring degraded land, we could grow more food (without clearing more land) or grow more trees (“the best technology to sequester carbon”). He pointed to a French initiative as a preeminent example.
The third panel addressed sustainable water management in agriculture. Panelists here all pointed out that agriculture is the largest consumer of water, yet agriculture issues are often considered separately from water issues. They also said that insufficient research has been done on the link between water management and land management through agriculture. Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that the USDA and NASA are expanding the availability of data from remote sensing for use in the developing world, for example with Servir West Africa. Eduardo Mansur, Director of the Land and Water Division at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, recommended using their SDG6 framework as a model to improve reliability, availability, and frequency of data sources for water in agriculture. Meanwhile, Sharon Dijsma, Minister for the Environment of the Netherlands, pointed to their “More Crop per Drop” program as a model for improving water efficiency in agriculture.
The last panel discussed climate finance for agriculture and food security and featured speakers from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the two primary organizations responsible for distributing funds under the UNFCCC. Both organizations essentially said that more research into effective management techniques is necessary, and after the data is available, fund distribution pathways will need to be established.
Landscape management has a lot of promise, but has yet to be fully developed. As SBSTA develops concrete agriculture goals at SBSTA 46 and 47, it should look to this methodology as a potential managements scheme that can be applied consistently onto the variable landscape of our world.