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Copenhagen: No pro-poor agriculture? No thanks

Written by Natasha Grist

There has been a growing focus on climate change across the global agricultural community in the run up to the Copenhagen conference. There have been major summits (e.g. the High-Level Expert Forum, the World Food Summit) and agricultural institutions have produced reports on this issue (e.g. IFPRI, FAO). This year’s COP15 summit has seen the biggest ever gathering around the topic, the Agriculture and Rural Development day, complemented by well-attended side events. Discussions covered the importance of food security amid the challenge of climate change, and how the detail of the negotiation texts should reflect agriculture.

In an increasingly urbanising world, why is agriculture such a focus? There are two main reasons.

First, agriculture and food security are inextricable. Food security is a major concern for the coming years with increasing population requiring, on current projections, a 70% increase in food production by 2050. No one knows how to achieve this, even without climate change. Add climate change to the complex mix of rural production challenges, with major declines in yields projected in many parts of the world, and the world faces a major chasm in demand and potential supply.

Second, agriculture, seen holistically, is part of the wider global ecosystem and land management strategy. Agricultural strategies (including livestock) still include land use that is very inefficient and ecologically destructive. These are directly responsible for most of the deforestation of the planet today. Wider and deeper impacts affect carbon emissions, biological diversity and genetic stocks, water resources, soil degradation, and human health.

Biofuels concerns, food price hikes and climate change projections add fuel to international concerns. The links are now clear; action is underway. So what progress has been made on agriculture and climate change around COP15, and where are the shortcomings? First, progress:

  1. A Common message: no agriculture, no deal
    These world-level meetings provide a platform for networking between institutions. The common message is strong, and vital. ‘No agriculture, no deal’ was the mantra echoing  around the Agriculture and Rural Development Day, underlining the importance of including food security and agriculture in the text of any deal. An agriculture work programme is also on the cards to supplement existing gaps in research.
  2. Agriculture and Forestry combining forces
    A joint statement emphasised long-awaited cross-sectoral cooperation on climate change between the agricultural and forestry communities. Agroforestry approaches may enjoy renewed impetus through the possibilities offered through payments for ecosystem services including carbon sequestration.

But all this effort to create global impetus around the sector masks important differences. “Don’t differentiate between types of agriculture” said one farmer from Southern Ontario at the meeting – we are all in the same boat. But are farmers all really in the same boat when it comes to the impact of climate change? Of course not. Farms are different sizes, with widely varying incomes and structures. Those who farm may depend fully, partially, or not at all, on agricultural incomes or farm produce. This leads to very different practices on the land, levels of mechanisation and inputs, with important implications for agriculture, climate change mitigation and adaptation. Those dependent on the land for survival, and on rainfed agriculture, such as subsistence farmers in West Africa, are extremely vulnerable to climate change. Their challenges include a lack of access to information, and a lack of alternative livelihoods or opportunities to change traditional behaviour in the face of climate change. Not to mention their likely lack of access to any funding for adaptation or mitigation that will be forthcoming under the agreement. Many may die as a result of floods, droughts and complex factors including climate change in the future. The challenges they face are on an entirely different level to those faced by farmers in developed countries.

How does this relate to demands from the agriculture sector? The current agriculture-related text from Copenhagen mentions issues of insurance, risk, financing, intellectual property rights, technology transfer, marginal farmers, and ecosystems. But the needs and demands of poor farmers and richer farmers on these issues are very different. Some of the detail (relating, for example, to subsidies and world trade) may indeed reveal more rifts than commonalities. 

So, whilst supporting the progress made to coalesce the agricultural community on climate change, we must press for a good deal – not only for the agricultural sector itself – but for the poorest people who depend on that sector.