Agriculture – a global win-win but, sadly, a ‘no-win’ at COP22


November 17th, 2016

Agriculture: everywhere, yet nowhere

As an agriculturalist following the climate change negotiations (the ‘Conference of Parties’ or annual COPs) I used to think that agriculture was the most ‘not talked about’ topic. It was implicit everywhere, but nowhere in the text. Until, with great relief, food security was highlighted in the Paris Agreement.

Recognizing the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change

However, after a rather frustrating week at COP22, it now looks like agriculture is the most ‘not acted on’ topic!

No action on agriculture

Last week the developing countries (the G77 group) introduced a promising draft ‘COP decision’ on agriculture. The proposed text had a focus on ‘adaptation’ as this is the area where action and investment is desperately needed for food security and sustainable development for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – where goal 2 is “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. It also recognised that ‘mitigation’ (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) is a ‘co-benefit’ and therefore the importance of agriculture in reducing emissions.

COP22However, the EU (supported by the USA) proposed an alternative text that called for direct action on mitigation and adaptation, including the use of biofuels to replace fossil fuels. Unfortunately the differences in emphasis (and a lack of trust about underlying intent), led to the withdrawal of the decision. So, yet again, the vital topic of how the COP should treat agriculture was relegated to the body convening for ‘technical discussions’ – for further discussion and to provide ‘advice’ to the COP.

A lack of strategy from COP22

Having a decision at COP 22 would have ensured progress and guided planning, implementation and finance at all levels. The decentralised planning process, through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), would have ensured that the resulting actions are appropriate to individual nation’s needs and priorities. If agriculture doesn’t have a COP decision to guide planning, it risks being forgotten as countries, donors and bilateral actions follow their own priorities.

Watching from the side lines it is hard to not draw the conclusion that somehow the winners in this are those who make money from the status quo – the industries and markets linked to intensive agriculture. Or perhaps developed nations, content with their preferential place in this troubled world, fearful of the cost of adaptation. Can’t they see that addressing the issue from an ‘adaptation with mitigation co-benefits’ perspective, is better than no action! And, failure to act soon will lead to much greater cost in the long run.

A constructive way forward

The Paris Agreement and its rapid and widespread ratification this year is unprecedented and historic. Even the UK has now signed.COP22

Since agriculture is central to climate change the discussions will continue. However, discussion is not enough! Through its various bodies, the COP has been discussing agriculture for years (at least 6). Now is the time to use the Paris Agreement to unlock the door on planning and financing climate actions in agriculture.

Tackling adaptation using co-benefits approach

Practical Action’s ongoing work in South Asia to facilitate organic matter value chains as a strategy for addressing the problem of very low soil organic matter is just one example of ‘adaptation with mitigation co-benefits’ transforming agriculture – a clear win-win! Such ecological approaches address both adaption and mitigation as they improve long-term productivity and protect or build soil fertility, thereby combating degradation and the need for farmers to develop new land.

For me the greatest missing argument for action on agriculture now, is that, if investment and action is based on ecological principles, it can be genuinely inclusive and sustainable. It can be a win-win-win – for food security, rural livelihoods and the environment.

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