Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production

Report Authors
Danielle Nierenberg was the director of the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project.
Laura Reynolds is a Research Associate with the Worldwatch Institute's Food & Agriculture program.
  • Agriculture is currently responsible for an estimated 25 to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a key contributor to global climate change. 
  • At the same time, due to its reliance on healthy soils, adequate water, and and a delicate balance of atmospheric gases, the impact of global warming on agriculture has already proved devastating.
  • Alternative approaches to farming, six of which are highligted in this report, can ensure that agriculture remains a sustainable source of food and income for the world's seven billion people, as well as a means of fighting or adapting to climate change.
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The mutually adverse relationship between climate change and agriculture can be reversed. (The Gates Foundation)

This summer, record temperatures and limited rainfall parched vast areas of U.S. cropland, and with Earth’s surface air temperature projected to rise 0.69 degrees Celsius by 2030, global food production will be even more unpredictable. Although agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change, contributing an estimated 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, when done sustainably it can be an important key to mitigating climate change.

At the same time, because of its reliance on healthy soil, adequate water, and a delicate balance of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, farming is the human endeavor most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But agriculture’s strong interrelationships with both climatic and environmental variables also make it a significant player in reducing climate-altering emissions as well as helping the world adapt to the realities of a warming planet.

The global agricultural sector has the potential to reduce and remove up to 88 percent of the carbon dioxide that it currently emits.

The good news is that agriculture can hold an important key to mitigating climate change. Practices such as using animal manure rather than artificial fertilizer, planting trees on farms to reduce soil erosion and sequester carbon, and growing food in cities all hold huge potential for reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the global agricultural sector could potentially reduce and remove 80 to 88 percent of the carbon dioxide that it currently emits. With alternative approaches, small-scale agriculture in developing countries has the potential to contribute 70 percent of agriculture’s global mitigation of climate change. And many of these innovations have the potential to be replicated, adapted, and scaled up for application on larger farms, helping to improve water availability, increase diversity, and improve soil quality, as well as mitigate climate change.

This report, Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture: Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production, highlights six sustainable approaches to land and water use in both rural and urban areas that are helping farmers and other food producers mitigate or adapt to climate change—and often both. They are:

Building Soil Fertility: Avoiding heavy chemical use and unnecessary tilling in agriculture can help to organically rebuild dry or lifeless soils. Alternately, raising both crops and livestock on the same land can drastically reduce the total amount of energy expended to produce a crop or animal, thus reducing overall emissions.

Agroforestry: Because trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping them on farms whenever possible can help mitigate climate change. This approach, known as agroforestry, also keeps the soil healthier and more resilient by maximizing the amount of organic matter, microorganisms, and moisture held within it. Agroforestry also provides shade for livestock and certain crops, and creates habitats for animals and insects, such as bees, that pollinate many crops. 

Urban Farming: Growing food in cities can mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions released from the transport, processing, and storage of food destined for urban populations. Urban agriculture also increases the total area of non-paved land in cities, making urban landscapes more resilient to flooding and other weather shocks, while improving the aesthetic value of these landscapes.

Cover Cropping/Green Manuring: Cover cropping, green manuring, is the practice of strategically planting crops that will deliver a range of benefits to a farming system, and often plowing these crops into the soil instead of harvesting their organic matter. Planting cover crops improves soil fertility and moisture by making soil less vulnerable to drought or heat waves. Cover crops also serve as a critical deterrent against pests and diseases that affect crops or livestock, such as corn root worm or Rift Valley fever, particularly as warmer temperatures enable these organisms to survive in environments that were previously too cold for them.

Improving Water Conservation and Recycling: Innovations in water conservation, including recycling wastewater in cities, using precise watering techniques such as drip irrigation rather than sprinklers, and catching and storing rainwater, all help to reduce the global strain on already-scarce water resources.

Preserving Biodiversity and Indigenous Breeds: Growing diverse and locally adapted indigenous crops, such as yams, quinoa, and cassava, can provide a source of income and improve farmers’ chances of withstanding the effects of climate change, such as heat stress, drought, and the expansion of disease and pest populations. Preserving plant and animal biodiversity also reduces farmers’ overreliance on a small number of commodity crops that make them vulnerable to shifts in global markets.

By tapping into the multitude of climate-friendly farming practices that already exist, agriculture can continue to provide food for the world’s population, as well as be a source of livelihood for the 1.3 billion people who rely on farming for income and sustenance. If agriculture is to play a positive role in the global fight against climate change, however, agricultural practices that mitigate or adapt to climate change will need to receive increased research, attention, and investment in the coming years.

Laura Reynolds | December 4, 2012