[permaculture] Agriculture and climate change /Why farms may be the new forests

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Wed Jan 6 10:49:46 EST 2010

Agriculture and climate change
Why farms may be the new forests
Dec 30th 2009
 From The Economist print edition

In the war against climate change, peasants are in the front line

Into battle in the eco-war
FOR people who see stopping deforestation as the quickest 
climate-change win, Copenhagen seemed a success. Although there is 
still work to be done on the initiative known as REDD (Reducing 
Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), the deal struck 
in Copenhagen made it into a real thing, not just an idea. The notion 
of reducing net deforestation to zero was not explicitly mentioned, 
but it looks much more credible than it did two years ago.
As well as giving heart to the protectors of trees, this outcome is 
encouraging for people whose focus is not on forests but on fields. 
Climate and agriculture matter to each other in several ways. On the 
downside, farming is a cause of deforestation, and also emits 
greenhouse gases in its own right-perhaps 14% of the global total. On 
the upside, agriculture can also dispose of heat-trapping gases, by 
increasing the carbon content of soils.
And because farmers (unlike say, coal-producers) feel the effects of 
the changes their activities may be causing, they have a role in 
adapting to climate change. Farms, particularly marginal ones, are 
the first to suffer when the climate shifts; increase their 
resilience and you help a lot of people. Whether the aim is 
adaptation to climate change or slowing it, there is an obvious need 
for more research on the benign contributions that agriculture can 
make. For people who are seized of this need, there was a welcome 
boost on December 16th when 21 countries pledged $150 billion to a 
Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases.

One of the attractions of a focus on agriculture is that even poor 
countries have farms; in some cases credits for carbon newly locked 
away in their soil may be a more plausible way of attracting money 
than rewards for low-carbon industrialisation. A more remote 
possibility is that such countries will earn credits by hosting 
efforts to pump carbon dioxide out of the air and store it away.
Such "geoengineering" is still seen as far-fetched and in some 
circles misguided, but a reference to it was made in the Copenhagen 
documents. It was cited as a possible future direction for the Clean 
Development Mechanism, which provides credits for carbon-saving 
projects in poorer countries. In the aftermath of negotiations with a 
hint of slash-and-burn, new seeds may be taking root.

Global Research Alliance Launched at the U.N. Climate Change 
Conference in Copenhagen

Today in Copenhagen, agricultural research took center stage at the 
United Nations Climate Change Conference when Ministers from 17 
countries and I launched a Global Research Alliance that will help us 
better understand how agriculture can help reduce greenhouse gases 
while also growing more food.  USDA will commit up to $90 Million 
over four years towards this scientific Alliance that we hope will 
broaden our existing research networks and build new ones.

While the Alliance originally was developed in close cooperation 
between New Zealand and the U.S., other countries have eagerly 
embraced this opportunity to work together to make the world's 
agricultural system part of the solution to climate change. The 
Alliance will bring together our nations' best agricultural 
scientists to develop the science and technologies farmers around the 
world need to reduce greenhouse gases and yet ensure agriculture will 
continue to meet the world's growing needs for food, feed, fiber, and 

(Plant physiologist Jack Morgan (left) and soil scientist Ron Follett 
(right) discuss research projects at ARS GRACEnet sites across the 
United States while physical science technician Ed Buenger conducts 
mass spectrophotometer analysis of soil samples for carbon and 

The Alliance will focus on improving the measurement and estimation 
of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon storage in different 
agricultural systems around the globe. These collaborative efforts 
will help develop consistent methods to measure and estimate 
greenhouse gas emissions and carbon storage and improve the 
monitoring of mitigation efforts which are essential to reducing the 
impacts of climate change and demonstrating the effectiveness of our 
greenhouse gas reduction strategies.

Through this Alliance each nation will be able to bring its unique 
capabilities and expertise to bear on limiting the buildup of gases 
that are causing climate change.   The Alliance also offers 
opportunities for capacity building and training of scientists; and 
welcomes new members.  Through partnerships among researchers in 
participating countries the Alliance will develop new knowledge and 
technologies that farmers and other land and natural resource 
managers can use to mitigate greenhouse gases.  This includes 
cost-effective and accurate ways of measuring greenhouse gas 
emissions and carbon stored in soil; new farming practices that 
reduce emissions and increase carbon storage in farmland in different 
countries; and farming methods that sustain yields while helping to 
mitigate climate change. 

Alliance members all recognize the important link between food 
security and climate change. We also recognize that climate change is 
an enormous issue for agriculture that requires an unprecedented 
global effort. The world's food and agricultural system is especially 
vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and faces significant 
challenges in meeting increasing global food demand.  Climatic 
stresses could have real consequences on food production, 
dramatically affecting the yields of staple food crops, resulting in 
scarcity and threatening people's livelihoods, particularly in 
developing nations. A study by the International Food Policy Research 
Institute suggests that rice and wheat yields in developing nations 
could decrease as much as 19% and 34% respectively by 2050 due to the 
effects of climate change.
(Left: Using closed vented chambers, biological science aide Rochelle 
Jansen (right) and soil scientist Jane Johnson collect gas emissions 
from soil. Samples will be analyzed for carbon dioxide, nitrous 
oxide, and methane with a gas chromatograph.)

(Right: Soil scientist Ron Follett examines a soil profile beneath a 
native grassland site near Woodward, Oklahoma, before collecting 
samples for soil carbon analysis.)

We also know that agriculture contributes around 15% to global 
greenhouse gas emissions and that agriculture and forestry have 
unique capabilities that can help off-set greenhouse gas emissions. 
Agricultural and forested lands have enormous potential to store 
additional carbon offering new economic opportunities for farmers and 
rural communities everywhere.  Agriculture has the opportunity to 
reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon storage 
by improving efficiency and productivity of agricultural systems 
through improved management practices and technologies. These 
improvements also would help build the resilience and adaptive 
capacity of the world's food production systems and make them more 
sustainable while meeting the increasing demand for food. President 
Obama has made climate change one of his top domestic priorities 
through policies advancing clean energy and by engaging the 
international community; and I have made it a top priority, along 
with global food security, for agriculture and ag research.

Through this Alliance forged today, agriculture will have a unique 
opportunity to make a real difference in finding solutions to two of 
the most difficult challenges the world faces today, global climate 
change and food security. I look forward to working with the other 
Alliance members to develop partnerships with farmer organizations, 
the private sector, international research institutions, and others 
to enhance our research efforts to bring practical solutions for 
climate change mitigation to the world's farmers. 

Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack

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