COP28: Bringing Sustainable Agriculture to the Forefront

Sustainable agricultural practices are crucial not only for the environment but also for long-term food security.

Climate Change
5 min read
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In 2023, the global temperatures temporarily increased by more than 2°C above the preindustrial era levels, further intensifying average global temperatures and ringing yet another set of alarm bells on the need to act fast and act now to address the challenges of climate change. 

At the Conference of Parties this year or COP28, the major focus shifted towards sustainable agricultural and food systems to drive sustainability.

But what is the link between climate change and agriculture practices? 

What Makes Agriculture Contribute to GHG Emissions

Our global food systems — including production, land use, energy use, transport, storage, retail, consumption, and disposal of food — account for about 31 percent of human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and account for at least 15 percent of fossil fuels burned annually. The biggest contributors are industrialised farming practices and the associated land use — particularly related to livestock — and synthetic fertiliser use. 

Unsustainable agricultural practices including crop and livestock practices with their emissions and land use lead to degradation of organic soil making the sector one of the big contributors to global GHG emissions.  According to the (Food and Agriculture Organisation) FAO, in 2018, world total agriculture and related land use emissions reached 9.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, accounting for 17 percent of global GHG emissions from all sectors. 

Furthermore, current agricultural practices are also depleting other critical natural resources like water. In a study published in 2017, FAO estimated that agriculture accounted for 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals. 

From just these data points related to natural resource use in agriculture, we can garner that sustainable agricultural practices are key not only for environmental sustainability but also for long-term food and nutrition security for human beings. This, when combined with the fact that the majority of the world’s food is grown by small-holder farmers highlights the importance of enabling small-holder farmers to practice sustainable agriculture to ensure long-term food security for all.

For the first time since its inception in 1995, food and land use have been brought to the forefront of the discussions at COP 28. The COP 28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action is the first resolution at any COP to draw links between climate change and the food we eat.

The declaration signed by 134 countries recognises the link between food systems and climate change and invites national governments to align their national food systems and agriculture strategies with their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.

The signatories have committed their countries “to expedite the integration of agriculture and food systems into our climate action and, simultaneously, to mainstream climate action across our policy agendas and actions related to agriculture and food systems” by 2025.


Aiding Smallholder Farmers With Better Use of Resources

Sustainable agriculture is not only connected to providing sustainable choices for food and fashion, but with increasing innovations, agriculture is also becoming important for other dependent industries ranging from fuel to packaging and even transport. 

With a significant percentage of the emissions being within farmgate, creating sustainable agriculture and food systems must have our farmers at its heart. Not only are farming communities at the frontlines of bearing the brunt of climate change in terms of their livelihood and farm outputs; but also the practices that they follow can have a major bearing on mitigating or accelerating climate change.

Thus, not only should we build the capacity of smallholder farmers to deal with the effects of climate change but also to undertake better land use, soil, water, energy, and waste management practices on farms. Building their capacity to ensure that they don’t have excessive reliance on the use of highly toxic hazardous chemicals and other synthetic inputs but also so that they follow regenerative, natural, or organic farming practices to ensure better stewardship of our natural resources and food systems. 

Systems like Fairtrade Standards work to enable such sustainable practices on farms.  In addition, though, Fairtrade Standards also emphasise and create mechanisms for ensuring the economic sustainability of farmers. Farmers must earn a decent livelihood that allows them to follow non-exploitative and sustainable agricultural practices.  Exploitation breeds exploitation and enabling sustainable livelihood for farmers would enable sustainable practices to be followed on farms and therefore sustainable food and agricultural outputs for all.

To reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and promote sustainable agricultural practices while also enabling smallholder farmers to deal with the effects of climate change, we must strike a balance between retaining and promoting some good traditional agricultural practices while also supporting and encouraging the adoption of tested and viable innovations and use of technology.  


Balancing Traditional Practices and Modern Tested Technologies

We need to promote and build on some of the traditional agricultural practices and techniques of mixed farming, bio-diverse farming, conserving, documenting, and promoting the use of bio-diverse varieties of various traditional and hybrid seeds. We also need to promote organic, natural, regenerative, low synthetic and toxic chemical use, and low resource farming. 

At the same time, technological innovations such as the use of micro-weather stations and soil sensors combined with IoT (Internet of Things) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) can help assess the variability in key weather patterns and provide timely feedback to the farmers on water, pest management, harvest and other key agricultural activities in the face of growing weather uncertainties. Therefore, to deal with climate change we need a balance of the traditional practices and adoption of modern tested technologies.

In terms of the wider production systems and value chains for food and fashion, promoting the adoption of processes, technologies, and inputs that reduce GHG emissions, reduce water consumption, reduce waste, and promote more circular processes would also enable climate mitigation and reducing the pressure on the natural resources. 

If we want to mitigate climate change, one has to focus not only on production practices but also our consumption patterns.  Speaking of food supply chains and consumption, according to the United Nations, globally, around 13 percent of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while an estimated 17 percent of total global food production is wasted in households, the food service, and retail altogether.

Therefore, close to 30 percent of the food produced is wasted across the supply chains and consumption points which is not only a massive drain on resources but also generates GHG emissions across the process. We need the adoption of more efficient processes and practices which would also contribute to reducing waste from farmgate to retail.

As consumers, we should also choose food from more sustainable agricultural systems and be aware of the carbon, water, and chemical footprint- the “true cost” - of our choices. We should also choose based on economic equity for farmers and workers as often focussing on just the lowest price can also unleash a race to the bottom.

Creating sustainable agricultural, food, and fashion systems is a shared responsibility, and whatever our role our sustainable choices and support for sustainable action will create a sustainable tomorrow.

(Abhishek Jani is CEO, Fairtrade India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Climate Change   COP28 

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