Five months after the COP21 in Paris, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Bonn, Germany from May 16 to May 26, 2016. Representatives of all state parties to the Paris Agreement gathered to negotiate certain elements of the agreement and to begin discussions on its implementation. One of the central themes on the agenda was the role of agriculture in climate change, and this is what drew me to attend the conference.
The links between agriculture, our food system and climate change are tight and complex. When it comes to discussing the fight against climate change, the way in which food is produced, i.e. agricultural models, cannot be separated from consumption patterns (the food system), so we have to step back and look at the overall picture.
The figures speak for themselves: 800 million people in the world suffer from hunger, and according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 98% of them live in countries of the Global South and almost half are peasants. Despite occupying less than 25% of the world’s farming land, small- family farmers produce most of the world’s food. These stewards of the Earth help feed the world, yet they also suffer the most from hunger.
The problem of hunger cannot be stated simply in the manner of a mathematical equation – too many people to feed, not enough food. It is mainly a political issue related to inequality of access to resources and opportunities. The problem of hunger is also an issue of power. The impacts of climate change exacerbate these inequalities and affect the access of the most vulnerable populations to food.
The commitments made by Canada as part of the framework of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development (the Sustainable Development Goals) and the Paris Agreement require going beyond the question of agricultural productivity (the volume of food produced) and must address the issue of agriculture and food security, while respecting and protecting our common home, the Earth.
According to an Environment Canada report, some 8 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada in 2014 were the direct result of agricultural activities, which represents a 21% rise from 1990 levels. The report also asserts that one of the main factors explaining this rise in GHG emissions is a sustained increase in the use of chemical fertilizers.
It is generally recognized that on a worldwide scale, agriculture is the cause of between 11 and 15% of emitted greenhouse gases. Most of these emissions stem from the use of chemical fertilizers, gas for machinery and heating, as well as from the excess manure generated by intensive animal farming. Taken as a whole, the industrial food system emits between 44 and 57% of the world’s GHG emissions. This estimate includes deforestation, agriculture, transportation, food processing, packaging, freezing, retail sale, and waste.
Addressing food security from the perspective of climate change requires a certain amount of intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness and even risk-taking on the part of farmers, as well as consumers. Exploring agricultural models and food systems that promote the integration of environmental and social needs can mean producing or acquiring fruits and vegetables that look less attractive, are less diversified and more expensive, but on the other hand, are more flavourful, nutritious and wholesome. So the fight against climate change involves a paradigm shift in terms of agricultural models and food systems, as well as in terms of our consumption patterns.
Upon the release of a report on the shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems that was produced by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES), the lead author of the report, Emile Frison, stated: “Farmers can only be expected to transform their practices when they are certain that they will find markets. And consumers will only shift towards healthy, sustainable food when it is accessible and affordable to them. These changes must lock each other in, just as current dynamics conspire to lock them out.” Olivier de Schutter, co-president of IPES added: “We must change the way we set political priorities. The steps towards diversified agroecological farming are steps to democratize decision-making and to rebalance power in food systems.”
Development and Peace’s partners and allies, both in the Global South and here in Canada who live on and work the land, have been discussing these issues for a long time. In fact, they are proposing alternatives such as agroecology.