SPECIAL REPORT/ The fundamental purpose of farming is to feed humanity. But the reality of contemporary agriculture is often quite different, and it is costing the planet dearly. EurActiv France reports.
Europe’s fertile plains produce an abundant cereal crop, some of which ends up as bread or pasta. But much of it is also used for animal feed: maize provides proteins for cattle, and barley, when it is not used to make beer, is exported to feed sheep in Saudi Arabia. And one in ten European cars now runs on biodiesel from rapeseed.
The variety of different aims pursued by modern farmers have caused a ten-fold increase in the sector’s environmental impact. Agriculture now accounts for one quarter of the planet’s Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it one of the most carbon-intensive activities.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), carbon emissions from agriculture have doubled in just five years, mainly due to increases in livestock breeding and the methane these animals emit. The digestive gasses produced by the world’s 80 billion livestock animals account for 40% of the sector’s total GHG emissions. Methane is 25 times m as ore powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2).
While the explosion of agriculture’s carbon footprint is largely down to the production of meat and the growth in demand for meat products, the effects of deforestation cannot be discounted. The uprooting of forests and the destruction of the world’s humid zones, which are natural carbon sinks, as well as the artificialisation of land in high growth areas, are also major contributors to greenhouse gas production.
Calls for farmers to alter this alarming and destructive course have largely fallen on deaf ears. Agriculture received only the most cursory of mentions at the COP21. A source from the European Commission said, “This is a sensitive issue, and we are making gradual progress.”
Under the Commission’s 2013 programme of “greening” the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a bonus and penalty scheme was put in place to encourage farmers to preserve hedgerows and consume less water. But the programme ignores the question of surface artificialisation and the idea of limiting bovine livestock farming.
The regulatory response from the EU, which recently decided not to limit greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming, appears weak. But for Pascal Canfin, the director of WWF France, who is working with the frozen foods retailer Picard to develop meat-free products, another approach to changing agricultural practices is possible.
“We have to target consumer habits. Encouraging local communities to choose certified palm oil, for example. Or going directly to consumers by promoting vegetarian dishes: not everyone can become a vegetarian over night, but it could help encourage people to eat less meat,” he said.
At the other end of the chain, the construction of a regulatory framework is slowly progressing. Agriculture accounts for 10% of CO2 emissions across the EU, but with large variations from one country to another: in Ireland, for example, farming is responsible for 30% of CO2 emissions.
Already “greened” in 2013, the CAP is due for another reform in 2020, when the focus of the model will be adapted to take into account the climate risks associated with farming. If only by changing the methodology: as climate change increases the risk of variable harvests, the new CAP could offer a system of insurance that would only be activated if the harvest was poor or price fell too low.
According to the latest study by the FAO and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main risk that climate change poses to agriculture is the increased frequency of extreme weather events, like drought and flooding. The need to adapt to temperature changes is also inevitable.
Research into crop varieties that use fewer resources and less water is already ongoing. But only by reversing the upward trend of its own emissions can the agriculture sector guarantee its own future and its ability to continue feeding the planet.
This idea is behind the French “4 per 1,000” initiative; a plan to cut farming emissions by sequestering carbon in the soil.
The Paris agreement signed by 195 members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on 12 December 2015 aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by:
- Keeping the average global temperature rise to below +2°C compared to the pre-industrial period, and taking action to limit this temperature rise to +1.5°C, understanding that this will significantly reduce the risks and negative effects of climate change;
- Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production.