Challenging times for agriculture
Farmers need to increase their productivity rapidly, adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all at the same time. Is this a mission impossible? Marja-Liisa Tapio-Biström, a Finnish expert from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) believes such multitasking will be difficult but quite possible.The FAO is busily preparing for the upcoming Copenhagen climate summit. One of the organisation's main experts involved in preparations for the meeting is Marja-Liisa Tapio-Biström. "My job is to support the FAO's climate work and work out what we should do as an organization about the whole issue of climate change, with the ultimate goal being food security for all," she says.
Tapio-Biström's two-year posting at the FAO might seem a very short time to get to grips with a task of this scale. "The truth is that we must really act fast right now. It is imperative to incorporate agriculture and forestry into the climate agreement, since farming and land use produce about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. With no input from agriculture and forestry it would be impossible to achieve emission reduction targets."
Carbon sinks in the countryside
Agriculture itself produces considerable quantites of greenhouse gases. The intensive fertilisation of monocultural fields leaves a large carbon footprint. Livestock farming can also greatly burden the environment. "One major challenge is to reduce agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases like methaneand nitrous oxide."
Tapio-Biström believes that the crucial issue is the development of farming methods that maximise the amounts of carbon tied up in biomass and soil. The quantities of organic materials in farmland soils must be increased to boost their productivity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve their water retention capacity. This can be done by changing farming systems.
Composting, leaving crop residues out on the fields, growing leguminous crops and growing tree crops can all help to tie up carbon. In the USA, Canada and Latin America many farmers no longer plough the soil. Combined with crop rotation and the recycling of crop residues, this practice has beneficial effects on climate change, productivity and the farm economy.
Complex issues facing negotiators
"Agriculture is a uniquely challenging area for climate negotiations. In the energy sectors we generally deal with large units, and measuring their emissions is rather straightforward, while in agriculture we have hundreds of millions of farmers, who must all change their practices to make soils and vegetation into carbon sinks," explains Tapio-Biström.
The FAO sees the coming climate negotiations as part of wider issues that also encompass the global food security and the need for agriculture to adopt to new conditions.
"We must first adapt to cope with more extreme weather events such as fl oods and droughts - also improving risk management," says Tapio-Biström. "Then secondly, we will need to adapt in the longer term to changing temperature and recipitation patterns. This will necessitate different crop varieties and new farming practices. Thirdly, we will have to face the fact that in some areas it will no longer be possible to grow anything. Large numbers of people will have to migrate to different regions."
By Markku Rimpiläinen
Photos Miika Kainu and Kreetta Järvenpää