Ignored at COP21, sustainable agriculture is vital to climate mitigation

Farming is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but COP21 and the Paris Agreement failed to acknowledge the sector’s impact and the positive role it could play. EURACTIV France reports

“Three quarters of French methane emissions come from agriculture,” said Jean Jouzel, the vice-president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“But in spite of this, agriculture was left out of the international climate negotiations. Awareness of this issue is only a recent thing in France and there is a real lack of engagement from the farming community,” he added.

Yet from the field to the plate, via the food industry and distributors, the agricultural sector has an important role to play in climate change.

>>Read: MEPs vote to cap some agricultural emissions, but not cow burps

‘4 per 1,000’ a toothless initiative

The only agricultural solution presented at the COP 21 was the French ‘4 per 1,000’ initiative, a plan to use specific techniques to sequester carbon in the soils. For Gilles Luneau, the producer of a documentary called “climate emergency”, the basic idea is good, but poorly though through.

“It’s a piece of magical thinking,” he said at an agriculture and climate change round table organised by EURACTIV and its partner, Ouest France. “Behind the advertised benefits of this programme, we also have to think about the saturation and acidification of the soils.”

>> Read: The ‘4 per 1,000’ initiative brings climate action and agriculture together

The head of climate and agriculture policy at Climate Action Network, Cyrielle Denhartigh, made the same observation. She stressed that implementing the ‘4 per 1,000’ initiative should not absolve agribusinesses of their responsibilities. “We can sequester carbon, but we also have to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” she said.

Adaptation and mitigation

Thierry Caquet from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) believes agriculture can and should play an important role in mitigating climate change. This can be achieved through “the reduction of methane and nitrogen oxide emissions, better management of fertilisation and the use of pulse crops, as well as increasing the level of carbon stored in the soils”, he said.

According to INRA, the agricultural sector has a climate mitigation potential of 30-32 million tonnes of CO2, or around 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

But farmers must also adapt to the inevitable challenges arising as a result of climate change. “We should not forget that adaptation and mitigation go hand in hand,” said Caquet.

“With the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, farmers must adapt to fluctuations by putting in place new cultivation systems, by practicing conservation agriculture and prioritising diversification, which strengthens resilience,” he added.

Radical change

In order to halve its GHG emissions by 2050, the agricultural sector will have to radically change the way it works. For Denhartigh, improvements to farming practices are no longer enough: the whole agribusiness model will have to become truly sustainable.

But when it comes to balancing sustainability and profits, some farmers have little room for manoeuvre. “It is all very well to be radical, but we also need to be realistic. We cannot only impose initiatives; we also have to encourage their uptake,” said French Green MP Eric Alauzet.

Towards a more responsible food system

Changing consumption habits could also help improve the sector’s carbon footprint. Today, the equivalent of six kilos of CO2 are emitted for each kilo of red meat produced.

>>Read: Eating less meat will save the planet, study says

“Reducing meat consumption can help improve the quality of nutrition, cut GHG emissions and improve the health of consumers and farmers. It is also better for consumers’ wallets and for the sequestration of carbon in the soils,” Denhartigh said.

>>Read: Can we feed the world and halt climate change?

While this opinion was shared by Caquet and Luneau, they both expressed a greater concern for the negative impact of food waste and stressed the need to rethink the food industry’s economic model.

“Between the field and the plate comes the food industry. It is impossible to get rid of these agribusiness empires, so we have to encourage them to adopt more efficient practices,” Luneau commented.

30% of food produced in France is wasted, due in part to the methods of the big distributors.

 >>Read: Regulators urged to promote trust in Europe’s food chain

Thinking local

Alauzet argued that agroecology can provide an important part of the solution by giving back autonomy to farmers, developing circular and collaborative economies and promoting local food chains.

“Shortening 10% of our food supply chains will create between 80,000 and 100,000 jobs,” the Green MP said. Even the leading distributors appear to have understood this demand, as many now market locally produced meat and dairy products.

“Consumers have their share of the responsibility. They must be made to think and become aware of these issues. It is time to regionalise agricultural policy, to turn to local food and seasonal products, and that change starts at school,” Luneau stated.

The film producer added that with 53 million tonnes of cereals imported into the EU each year to feed livestock, “consumers have to take responsibility for what is on their plates”.

>>Read: TTIP: The downfall of EU agriculture?

Subscribe to our newsletters