Serious about climate change? Talk about agriculture
November 21st, 2013
12:16 PM ET

Serious about climate change? Talk about agriculture

By Bruce Campbell, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Campbell is the director of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, based in Copenhagen. The views expressed are the writers’ own.

Few people expected much concrete progress ahead of the ongoing international climate change talks taking place in Warsaw. Sadly, it seems the doubters were right to be skeptical as negotiators have failed to tackle one of the biggest climate challenges: changing agriculture technologies, practices and policies to make sure the world can feed itself.

When Typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded – slammed into the Philippines, the world was given a brutal reminder about the need for urgent action, an urgency given a tearful face when the head of the Philippine delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) made an impassioned plea for action.

Haiyan devastated central Philippines, a mostly agricultural region. But while images of the damage focused on flattened urban areas, the storm also crushed farms and plantations that produce rice, sugar, coconuts, and other key crops. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimated that the typhoon, which struck at the beginning of the rice-planting season, destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of the country’s most important staple.

While directly connecting climate change and specific storms has always been difficult, it is easy to see the impact of these super storms on food security. In early October, for example, Cyclone Phailin plowed through East India with almost as much force as Haiyan. Damage to insured crops in the states of Odisha and Bihar alone has been estimated at $45 billion.

On a global scale, the accumulated potential impact of these storms on the world’s food supply is quite frightening. Yet while super storms generate the headlines, equally pressing tragedies are slowly unfolding on fields and farms across the developing world with relatively little attention. Farmers, especially small-scale farmers, are struggling to cope with a climate that is both shifting – the crops they grow now may not bear fruit in future weather conditions – and increasingly unpredictable, with drought one year and too much rain the next. They’re battling weeds, pests and crop diseases that will continue to spread to new regions.

But there is potential relief for even the world’s poorest farmers. With access to better seeds and fertilizer, better planting techniques and better technology to anticipate and plan for seasonal weather changes, they could survive. With strategies to manage their risk, such as diversifying crops or buying weather-based crop insurance, they could thrive.

One problem is that the process of growing food itself actually releases 7.3 billion to 12.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide – some 14 to 24 percent of total global emissions. Trying things like growing trees on farms and practicing low-till agriculture are therefore "climate-smart" because they can simultaneously increase production while minimizing environmental impact. These approaches are essential if we want to meet our food needs while preserving scarce natural resources and cutting our climate footprint.

The danger climate poses to agriculture – and, correspondingly, the threat our current approach to agriculture poses to the planet’s climate patterns – have been recognized at the Warsaw talks. A leaked draft report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that because of global warming, food production will flatten out, decreasing by as much as two percent every decade, failing to keep pace with rising demand, which is expected to increase by as much as 14 percent each decade.

And the risk for climate-driven hunger is greater in the tropical regions, where adaptive capacity has not kept pace with the impact of climate change. In vast parts of Africa, for example, the growing season will shrink by an estimated 20 per cent within two generations. Life is already extremely harsh in these areas; less food will be devastating.

Unfortunately, this looming agriculture crisis has not led to responsible action from climate diplomats. Over the past few years, U.N. negotiations have sidestepped the question of how to fund climate change adaptation for agriculture in the least developed nations, passing the buck to whatever forum takes place next.

Lost in this evasion is the United Nations’ potential to kickstart widespread analysis of the problem and potential solutions, such as cataloguing known climate impact on agriculture and assessing what still needs further research.

Most importantly, though, agriculture needs to take center stage when all national governments discuss climate change. The ever-increasing demand for food cannot be met by a shrinking capacity to produce food. The poorest people have the least amount of responsibility for climate change, yet already suffer the most from it. Negotiators need to devote their attention to the inextricable link between climate change and agriculture – not the opposite, which is what we are seeing now as climate negotiators focus narrowly on national interests and domestic politics.

More and more developing nations are moving forward and addressing the climate crisis with whatever resources they can cobble together. If climate negotiators continue to drag their heels, the rest of the world may simply leave them behind.

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Topics: Climate • Environment

soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. ecopromos

    In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Robert Martin, co-author of a recent study on industrial farm animal production, explains how a powerful and intransigent agriculture lobby has successfully fought off attempts to reduce the harmful environmental and health impacts of mass livestock production.

    November 21, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  2. rightospeak

    How can you be serious about a hoax ? You can check the fact that ice in Antarctica has been growing , but the monopolist media in cahoots with the Climate Mafia seems to ignore it.

    November 21, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • mememine69

      Not once did these copy and paste news editors ever mention that it was a 30 year old consensus of "could be" and NEVER "will be" a crisis. Science never said it will so why is anybody saying it will?

      November 21, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • Jackie Heinl

      The ice sheets have been loosing mass – ie melting. That melt water is lower in salt and hence freezes at a higher temperature than sea water. Therefore more ice.

      November 23, 2013 at 8:30 am |
      • rightospeak

        More studies needed, Jackie , to see what is what. Unfortunately there is money to be made in the Global Warming . Is it a normal cycle, a 26,000 year cycle , no one seems to know. Why was it cold recently that calves could not develop winter coat in time and died in the US ? I do not know , but it sure does not look like Global Warming .

        November 23, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • john kneeland

      You are a shill, righttospeak, getting your talking points from sham websites.

      November 24, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  3. mememine69

    Belief that climate change will be a crisis is based solely on the scientific consensus that it will be a crisis but science agrees on nothing beyond "could be" a crisis not WILL be.
    Not one IPCC warning says; "inevitable" or "eventual" or "WILL be a crisis" so you believers must only say "could be" a catastrophic climate crisis of unstoppable warming for billions of innocent children of the future. Like peace and love eh, all that....

    November 21, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • Jackie Heinl

      What they say is that there is high confidence (95%) that abrupt climate change is occurring because of man's emissions. No scientist, including your doctor or weatherman will tell you things in absolute certainty. In my book, that level of confidence implies inevitability for worsening weather conditions. Furthermore, I think people like you dangerous. You might as well be yelling "No Fire – Please Return To Your Seats" when the room is filling with smoke and heat from the fire just outside the room. Boy, I would hate to be you when you meet your maker. You have same information available to you as the rest of us, yet you choose to deny reality. At least alcoholics have a genetic component to their denial, but I don't think that applies to you. I suspect greed applies to you. No, I would not want to be in your shoes at all.

      November 23, 2013 at 8:58 am |
      • sortinos

        Jackie: you misstate the science. There is high confidence that humans are responsible for at least 50% of the warming. Big difference from what you said.

        November 23, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • john kneeland

      No, not like that. Like consensus by thousands of scientists about phenomena already occurring, denied only by pseudo-science from certain business interests.

      November 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  4. ✠ RZ ✠

    Given that we are living in an inter-glacial period, climate change is inevitable. How we as humans might be affecting it one way or another must be given some very serious consideration. And no one can rightfully there "will be" nuclear war, but there most certainly "could be".

    November 21, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • sortinos

      And we are all rightfully careful to do what we can to prevent both. In my opinion, we're not doing a very good job with either, as Iran develops a nuclear bomb right under our nose. Not sure which will be more destructive: nuclear devastation or climate change.

      November 23, 2013 at 10:52 am |
      • Jackie Heinl

        Nothing like the spelling/grammar police on your tail. But, hey, I'm real and these comments are certainly not the source of my income. I live in the USA. I write in haste as most people do in comment sections. I write a lot of comments out of concern – I'm a field scientist with kids. And from what I read and see, the vast bulk of these changes in climate are driven by man. It's pretty much the only thing that has changed in the last 150 years.

        But I'm curious, why would you think I'm in China or Korea? My name is German American. Are other nationalities not permitted to comment? They are people too, and I thought this was a public thread.

        November 23, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  5. Thought+Food

    Reblogged this on Thought + Food and commented:
    How and where we grow our food and what we label it, these pressing questions now become more urgent in the face of the challenge of climate change. Great read on why we need to talk about climate change and agriculture together:

    November 21, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
  6. Winnipeg Boy

    The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.
    Thomas Jefferson

    November 22, 2013 at 10:13 am |
    • Jackie Heinl

      That's why scientist check their theory's through observation and experiment.

      November 23, 2013 at 9:13 am |
      • sortinos

        "Theories". I think that goes to show why you're so careless in your statements, which are so poor that it makes me want to join the deniers!

        November 23, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  7. argylesock

    Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says... Here's opinion about how as climates change, agriculture has to change.

    November 22, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  8. rightospeak

    If you want to mention agriculture mention the animals that died from cold recently in the US because they did not have a chance to develop the fur to protect them- why is there such silence on this event that I saw on TV recently-NBC ,I think ????The Winter came sooner , ha ? It does not fit the modeling equations ? Tell them at the Warsaw Conference before the bankers start taxing everybody with Al Gore's planning.

    November 22, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
    • Jackie Heinl

      It had been unusually warm which caught everyone off guard when it suddenly shifted to another form of extreme weather. I'm sure it didn't just hit the cows either, but all animals that occupied that area.

      This weather event fits the pattern of more extreme weather at both ends of a now flatten and shifted bell curve that represents our climate. Please see the National Academy's publications available on line for more information.

      November 23, 2013 at 9:09 am |
      • sortinos

        Jackie: apparently you're from China or Korea trying to pose as an American. I don't think you're earning your monthly $10 for your weak posts.

        November 23, 2013 at 10:55 am |
      • rightospeak

        I think that you are under the "bell" spinning yarn, Jackie.

        November 23, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
      • rightospeak

        The modeling bell curves are called sometimes scientific money laundering, Jackie, so I would not bet my money on them.

        November 23, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
      • Jackie Heinl

        For the commenters below:

        To righttospeak and santinos, Check Figure 4 in the 2012 Hansen and Sato paper. It illustrates the changes to the probability function of NA temperature anomalies and within the first paragraph or two, he cites a "shifting, broadening bell curve".

        November 23, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  9. Jackie Heinl

    read the 2007 USDA publication "Global Warming and Agriculture" and was shocked to see that all the projections utilized a rosy emissions scenario rather than the empirically correct A1FI.scenario. Then I started to notice the same error everywhere. What's up with that Mr. Z? This environmental scientist needs you to be my voice in challenging our government to tell us the truth regardless of how bad it is. How else can we make sensible decisions like where to live, where to build, what to plant, and what to breed? As reference, please view Dr. Kevin Anderson's 2012 Cabot Lecture on Vimeo or Youtube. Many thanks.

    November 23, 2013 at 8:25 am |
    • rightospeak

      The publications you mentioned, Jackie are probably published with special interest money. Read "Red Hot Lies" by Christopher C. Horner – How Global Warming Alarmists Use Treats, Fraud, and Deception to Keep You Misinformed.

      I listened to a speech by a Somali woman attending Warsaw Conference. She was from near Mogadishu and travels to Oxford and the UN pays for her to make speeches. We hear bad things about Somalia , how women are kept down, how piracy made home there. She seemed to blame piracy on Global Warming-what ????Someone needs to inform her as to the true causes of putting the fishermen there out of business. It is all phony- she is a rich rep of the Globalist that run the UN and she plays their tune.

      November 23, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  10. cambodine

    Reblogged this on Allana Potash Blog.

    November 23, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
  11. john kneeland


    November 24, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  12. john kneeland


    November 24, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  13. john kneeland

    You are blocking me, CNN

    November 24, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  14. john kneeland

    sortinos: Instead of refuting any of Heinl's arguments, you make an ad hominem attack, which labels you as a shill with no credibility.

    November 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  15. john kneeland

    I have made some detailed posts that do not exceed the word limit of other posts on here, and you are blocking them, CNN.

    November 24, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  16. john kneeland

    Name one reputable scientist who calls modeling bell curves "scientific money laundering," righttospeak.

    November 24, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
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