LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could be cut by more than half by 2030 if the world follows strategies such as eating less beef, reducing food waste and managing soil nutrients better, a report from climate experts said on Friday.
The biggest opportunities for curbing planet-warming emissions lie in Brazil, China, the European Union, India and the United States, according to the research published by two consulting firms, Climate Focus and California Environmental Associates.
“By making the way we produce food more efficient, farmers can reap the benefits of increased production while decreasing the environmental impacts of farming," said study co-author Charlotte Streck of Climate Focus.
"The energy and transport sectors have seen a significant growth in innovation needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sectors. It is time that agriculture followed," she added in a statement.
The report says yearly emissions could be reduced by as much as 50 to 90 percent by 2030 if the right policies are followed across food production and consumption systems.
Agriculture - from farm to fork - accounts for roughly one fifth of global emissions, including its role in deforestation, the study said. "Yet, historically, climate negotiators and policy makers have paid relatively little attention to the agricultural sector in the global effort to slow climate change," it added.
The issue has been polarised by what is often presented as a "false dichotomy" between improving food security and income for small farmers, or reducing environmental degradation. "Given the likely impacts of climate change on poor and vulnerable communities, we cannot afford to approach agriculture from these silos any longer," the study said.
The study was funded by the Climate and Land Use Alliance, grouping major U.S. foundations.
There is also little discussion about the opportunities to reduce emissions by changing diets and cutting food loss and waste, the report said.
It found that 70 percent of direct greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come from livestock, especially cows, sheep and other grazing animals. Much of these emissions could be eliminated if beef demand were reduced, particularly in the United States, which remains the world's biggest consumer of red meat despite falling levels, and China, where demand for beef is set to rise rapidly.
“It’s still possible to discourage the consumption of more beef (in China) without changing the country’s traditional beliefs and culture,” said Amy Dickie of California Environmental Associates, another co-author of the study. “Steering the Chinese diet in a more climate-friendly direction would yield enormous benefits for the country’s health and food security, as well as the global climate.”
In Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, improved food cooling and storage practices would prevent spoilage and losses, while in richer economies, food portions could be slimmed down and fewer edible products thrown away.
Farmers can also slash emissions by changing the way they grow food, the report said. Chinese farmers, for example, use too much fertiliser, and could cut this by 30-60 percent without harming yields, the authors proposed.
Other recommended improvements include reducing methane emissions from rice in Southeast Asia, and converting manure into compost and biogas through anaerobic digestion.
Agriculture can also play a role in storing carbon in croplands, grazing lands and agroforestry. The study suggests, for example, that Brazil could adopt silvopastoral systems - a combination of crops, trees and livestock - and boost the quality of its pasture grass as a way of sequestering carbon and limiting deforestation.
“There are so many ways in which policymakers can help farmers boost productivity while mitigating climate change,” Streck said. “We need to dispel the notion, once and for all, that productivity and sustainability can’t work hand in hand.”
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