"We would like to see greater conscience of the importance [of agriculture]," Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told Reuters this week at the Copenhagen climate talks.
"Historically the discussion centred on the industrial aspects of climate change, be it in terms of factories or transport, but less on the primary sector of agriculture."
The December meeting of 192 countries in the Danish capital is meant to agree the outlines of a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, so a full climate treaty can be signed next year.
Certain farm practices, especially in low-income countries, can heal degraded land and therefore boost food yields in the longer term, the FAO says.
Practices such as cutting stocking rates and applying organic materials to the land can also sequester the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the soil - equivalent to as much as 10% of global emissions - and so help slow warming.
Farming and CO2 emissions
Farming is also a major emitter as it helps drive deforestation. When that indirect effect is included, farming accounts for nearly a third of global greenhouse gases.
"Roughly around 31% of emissions come from agriculture [...] hence the impact of good policies to lessen the negative impact and good policies to increase the capacity for carbon sequestration," Diouf said.
Financial mechanisms needed to help farmers adapt
Some farm measures which boost soil carbon - known as conservation agriculture, examples of which include so-called 'catch crops' covering bare soil - can also retain water and so help farmers prepare for global warming, scientists say.
So far, negotiators in Copenhagen have proposed a "work programme" of further research into farm methods which cut emissions, and are expected to announce the outlines of a deal to compensate countries which slow deforestation.
They are also expected to fund steps which help developing countries prepare for climate change, and many poorer countries have included agriculture in those plans.
"I'd like to see that we have a financial mechanism to encourage countries which have forests not to do deforestation. I would like also to see conservation agriculture is given the necessary incentives," Diouf said, when asked what he wanted from the Copenhagen talks.
The present Kyoto Protocol forces rich countries which have ratified the pact to limit their greenhouse gases but allows them to omit entirely emissions from farming.
In addition, lucrative measures under Kyoto which allow rich countries to pay for carbon cuts in developing nations do not apply to agriculture or preserving forests, except in the case where pig farms trap the potent greenhouse gas methane to earn carbon offsets, or if farmers plant trees.
Livestock emissions raise concern
Some scientists say that greenhouse gas emissions from raising cattle have been severely underestimated - and may account for as much as half of the global total - prompting many scientists to recommend that people eat less meat.
Diouf would not go so far as to suggest hard targets for consumers such as "meat-free days".
"We have to educate people, ensure that there are better ways of producing meat. Food is an element of culture, of civilisation, you don't just change it overnight."
Shifting land use from source to sink
In parallell, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) released a report showcasing a number of successful business initiatives to shift land use "from a major global source of emissions to a major sink".
"Land use is an extremely important element of the climate change challenge and should be effectively addressed in the international climate change negotiations," said Björn Stigson, president of the WBCSD.
The report's corporate case studies include: developing new crop varieties that have less environmental impacts and can adapt to climate change, or products that help reduce emissions; using techniques like direct seeding and drip irrigation to reduce water use in dry regions; keeping soils healthy so they store more carbon, and; restoring degraded land.
(EurActiv with Reuters.)