More Food - Fewer Emissions
The world's farmers have to produce 70% to 100% more food by 2050, and yet do so while reducing the roughly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions that agriculture causes. That was the challenge under discussion at Agriculture Day in Copenhagen on Saturday, a day-long set of meetings sponsored primarily by the CGIAR network, the group of crop research institutions around the world that brought us the Green Revolution. The short answer given by the experts was money. Most of the discussion was about the challenge of producing the food. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave statistics from new analyses suggesting that rising temperatures will have serious impacts on world yields of rice, wheat and other crops. That creates a challenge for the world's farmers because it suggests the need for more land. But that leads to deforestation. Yield gains are therefore important. Most of the speakers and members of the audience spoke more, and with greater animation, about this challenge of producing this food. But that won't be easy. Governments have allowed funding to decline for basic crop research and "extension services" that send experts to work with farmers around the world.
IFPRI, one of the world's lead agricultural research institutions, has calculated that $7 billion per year for decades is necessary just to address these yield challenges and keep the number of hungry children from increasing. Meanwhile governments have spoken about contributing $3 billion per year, which is a major improvement, but probably still not enough. As hard as it will be to produce more food, that may be the easy part. Somehow the world has to produce more food on the same land while also reducing the nitrous oxide and methane €“ powerful greenhouse gases €“ that otherwise multiply as we use more fertilizer and make more livestock. In truth, the group had fewer specifics to offer about solving that problem. A key question that emerged for me was whether the funds for more food would also be used to encourage those forms of agriculture that reduce emissions. Those officials involved in distributing funds to boost food production said that right now there are no criteria or mechanisms in place for prioritizing funds at those forms of agriculture that reduce emissions as well.
Increasing agricultural productivity is critical to protecting forests, but it would be a grave mistake to spend money just to boost food production without simultaneously encouraging production techniques that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That will include different ways of applying fertilizer, and even just producing some kinds of livestock rather than others. The need for innovation was in the background but received less explicit attention. No one would argue that we know today exactly how to produce all the energy the world will need while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The same is true for producing the world's food. But the need for innovation in farming receives much less attention. The other challenge that only occasionally emerged was that of possibly using much of the world's productive land to produce energy. I spoke about a recent paper I co-authored in the jounral Science with twelve of the world's leading scientists about an error in how carbon dioxide emissions from bioenergy are counted in international treaties and domestic cap and trade laws. (See Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error at http://www.princeton.edu/~tsearchi/writings/Fixing%20a%20Critical%20Climate%20Accounting%20ErrorEDITED-tim.pdf ).
In effect, the rules treat all bioenergy as 100% reductions in carbon dioxide compared to the use of fossil fuels. But if the world produces this bioenergy by clearing forests, that may even increase greenhouse gas emissions. The rules have to distinguish those forms of bioenergy that reduce greenhouse gases from those that do not. If not fixed, this false accounting will encourage the clearing of much of the world's forests, and create enormous competition for the world's farmland with food production. As the financial crisis has shown, it's really important to get accounting rules right, and the principle applies as strongly to counting carbon as to counting money. INPE, Brazil's space research institute, also presented an interesting paper, which found that cattle ranching creates roughly half of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation and methane. The speakers emphasized the potential Brazil has to produce lots more beef on land that was already deforested. Expansion of cattle grazing causes even more deforestation that expansion of soy fields and palm oil plantations. That gives us reason for optimism because the technical potential is there to stop this expansion and whether we do so is a question of will and money.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.