Agriculture begins to tackle its role in climate change

After years of being off the table in climate talks, agriculture is now being considered widely by countries trying to reach their Paris emissions cuts pledges. By Georgina Gustin, Inside Climate News 4 Jan 2017

Farming in places like drought-plagued California is clearly impacted by climate change, but it can also play a role in slowing global warming, many countries are finding as they reach for emissions reduction targets. Credit: Getty Images

By allowing countries to decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the landmark Paris climate agreement opened the door to new solutions. And over the past year, many countries, particularly in the developing world, decided that an especially effective way to reach those targets is through their farms.

Nearly 80 percent of the countries said they would use agricultural practices to curb climate change, and more than 90 percent said they would use those practices in addition to changes in forestry and land use linked to farming.

“2016 has been a very good year for agriculture and climate,” said Martin Frick, director of climate, energy and tenure at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. “It’s become possible to finally discuss the elephant in the room.”

When climate negotiators gathered in Marrakech in November to begin mapping out the process for reaching the Paris goals, groups hosted at least 80 agriculture-focused sessions.

“Agriculture has really lagged,” said Craig Hanson, director of the food, forests and water program at the World Resources Institute. “Considering it contributes 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and 24 percent of net emissions with land-use change, it’s surprising it’s taken so long…But it’s finally happening,” he said.

In the U.S., the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, agriculture’s role in climate change has been discussed mostly by advocacy groups. And while the Department of Agriculture has launched programs to increase farmland’s capacity to capture carbon, those are voluntary. The U.S.’s plans for meeting the Paris goals rely mainly on energy and transportation.

When the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change launched its first global climate summit in 1992, agriculture hardly even entered the conversation. It wasn’t until about a decade ago that research began to show its contribution to global warming, with special attention paid to the ravages of deforestation for agriculture, especially palm oil.

“The numbers are pretty staggering. Maybe even a third of greenhouse gas emissions come from the land—more than transportation—but that wasn’t clear until 10 years ago,” said Seth Shames, who leads policy research for EcoAgriculture Partners, a group focused on hunger, rural poverty and biodiversity. “Those issues started getting discussed in the climate change community. The forest people were able to get organized…and there was less political resistance in the climate world.”

In response, the UNFCCC launched a program that pays developing countries to preserve their carbon-absorbing forests, including standards for measuring, reporting and verifying the emissions cuts.

Similar standards haven’t been developed yet for agriculture.

“Right now, we don’t have mechanisms in place to really capitalize on the benefits that agriculture mitigation strategies can provide,” said Ernie Shea, president of Solutions From The Land, a collaboration of agricultural industry and conservation groups. “Forestry’s much further ahead on measuring impacts. We’re not there yet with agriculture.”

The conversation around agriculture’s role in climate change stems from a sea change in negotiations themselves. In 2009, the climate summit in Copenhagen fell apart, largely, some believe, because countries bristled at the top-down approach that dictated what countries must do.

After Copenhagen, negotiators began working instead on a pledge-based approach.

“The Paris agreement doesn’t impose anything on member states, and turns it around and says: What can you bring to the table?” Frick explained. “This fundamental change in logic has had a tremendous impact for agriculture. Agriculture, for every single country, is one of the most sensitive areas—it’s an emotional topic.”

Ultimately, agriculture emerged as ripe for action. It is existentially linked to a country’s very survival and increasingly under threat from weather extremes, drought and floods. Agriculture, in other words, has to adapt to climate change, but also has a huge, unrealized potential to mitigate climate change. That can happen through farm practices like soil carbon sequestration through cover cropping, or by making existing farmland more productive and efficient.

“Drought impacts, flooding, higher nighttime temperatures affecting pollination, new weeds, invasive species. There’s an awareness in the agriculture community that we’re at risk and we’re not as resilient as we need to be,” Shea said.

That risk is driving the discussion. Farm industry leaders and academics formed the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance in 2015 to prompt changes in agricultural practices that have climate benefits. Shea says the alliance’s approach, much like the approach at the international level, is to promote the idea that certain production techniques are not only better for the environment, but also for farm productivity. The alliance’s members include the American Farm Bureau Federation, which continues to deny the scientific consensus on climate change.

“People are turned off by the climate change conversation,” Shea said. “Once you get into a conversation about improving productivity, you can get into a conversation about co-benefits.”

Greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector in developed countries average about 12 percent, compared to 35 percent in developing countries, which makes agriculture a relatively less important solution in industrialized countries. Still, advocates are pushing agricultural interests and regulators in the U.S. to do their part, pointing to research that says reaching the goals of the Paris agreement will be impossible without agriculture’s contribution.

Educating farmers about the benefits—and using them to meet Paris targets—could provide the best way forward.

“There’s a lot of fatigue with the negativity on climate change,” said Thomas Driscoll, policy director at the National Farmers Union, the U.S.’s second largest farm group. “Agriculture and climate change is exciting because there’s a lot that can be done. Doing the right thing for the climate can save farmers money.”

But challenges lie ahead. In both developing and advanced countries, many farmers can’t afford to take climate-targeted steps—such as letting land lie fallow to regenerate—unless governments provide meaningful financial incentives.

In the plans that many countries submitted to reach their climate pledges, actual details around agriculture are scarce. And only one country—Rwanda—included plans to address food waste, which contributes 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Homing in on those details and the precise strategies for cutting emissions is the work of the coming global talks.

“The next five years is going to be period where we, as a community—researchers, agronomists, NGOs—are going to start thinking about what we can do, the bundle of things we can do in agriculture,” Hanson said. “We’re on the agenda. Now we have to roll up our sleeves.”

** Food, Diet

With the world’s meat consumption on track to nearly double in the next three decades—a surge that could strain natural resources, increase greenhouse gas emissions and hamper the world’s ability to feed a ballooning population—a group of researchers has launched a project to shift that trend, starting with language.

Recognizing that the words “healthy” or “vegetable” can scare off consumers, the group of marketing experts, behavioral economists and consumers researchers, led by the World Resources Institute (WRI), is working to develop alternative language with U.S. and European food companies to make their plant-based options more appealing.  Certain words, like “superfood,” seem to do the trick.

The project, dubbed the Better Buying Lab, also aims to help guide the world’s farmers in adapting to the diet shifts necessary to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Global demand for beef alone is expected to grow by 95 percent between 2006 and 2050, largely driven by demand in China and India. Because producing animal-based foods consumes more resources — about three quarters of all farmland, generating two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions from food production— the booming demand for animal protein could have an outsized impact on the environment and climate.  Under the current trends, total emissions from agriculture could consume 70 percent of the global carbon budget by 2050.

Earlier this year, WRI released a study that found if people in developed countries cut their meat consumption to just over 2 ounces a day—roughly half of what they eat now—greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could shrink by 10 percent and agricultural land use by 13 percent. That’s a mass of land twice the size of India. The scenario could cut carbon dioxide emission from land-use changes by 168 billion tons by 2050.

But meat is so ingrained in most traditional diets and embedded in expectation that consumers are reluctant to shift to plant-centric diets.

“There’s a massive opportunity here,” said Daniel Vennard, the lab’s director. “But we need to work on behavior.”

Language used in marketing and labeling is extremely powerful, Vennard said.  In one study, for example, people who ate two identical cookies—one labeled healthy, one not—found the “healthy” one to be less tasty.

The lab is working with a handful of companies including Google, Hilton, Trinity Marketing, Quorn, Panera, Sodexo and Sainsbury’s, as well as the U.K’s WRAP group, which advocates for reducing food waste, and Stanford University’s dining system. These companies have agreed to tweak their menus, incorporating marketing tactics to motivate changes in buying — not an easy thing to do. If these strategies work within the companies on an experimental basis, the lab will share them more broadly with the industry.

The lab’s researchers believe a few marketing ploys that have worked in the past could help shift consumers toward more plant-based choices. First, they could simply package vegetarian foods as if they were proteins. For example, manufacturers began packaging soy and nut-based milks like traditional milk, sending U.S. sales soaring 250 percent in the last five years.

The lab’s team acknowledged that few people make choices based on environmental benefits, but they will change their buying habits based on health-based promises. For example, Vennard explained, Birds Eye reframed its fish fingers, made out of pollack, as “Omega 3 Fish Fingers,” prompting consumers to shift away from overfished cod.

Another marketing tactic: using high-profile tastemakers, including celebrities, to change social norms and make certain choices more desirable or even socially unacceptable. In China, for example, the group WildAid ran a series of ads with Chinese celebrities with messages against eating fins from endangered sharks. The Chinese government reported a 70 percent drop in shark fin.

An especially important key to driving these shifts is reframing language and messages in a more appealing way.

Calling a salad a “superfood” salad helped make the dish among the top 25 most popular menu items in the U.K. (The only vegetarian dish that makes the top 25 list in the U.S. is a veggie burger.)

Changing consumer behavior isn’t just a matter of language, though. One study found that men who eat a vegetarian diet are seen as less masculine—a perception, in the U.S. at least, that could have a significant impact on meat consumption. American men eat nearly 60 percent more meat than women.

In the U.S. beef consumption has seen a steady decline for decades, which is good news coming from the country that has the most resource-gobbling diet in the world.  Globally, the cattle and dairy industries account for about 14 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., estimates have placed agriculture as contributing  about 9 percent of emissions, but that number does not accurately account for livestock facilities because Congress has passed bills since 2009 preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from collecting data on them.

Advocates of a shift to more plant-based diets see welcome signs in various food trends that accommodate vegetables, from small plates menus to “bowl”-based chains that emphasize salads and vegetables.

“It’s not: How do we beat meat?” Vennard said. “The next five years we’ll be trying to get the plant-based industry to scale. To get it so we’re ready to grow.”