Agriculture takes a backseat again

Climate change activists with banners greet negotiators on their way for the second week of climate change talks at COP18 in Doha
(Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN)

Discussions about much-needed support for agriculture - which is seen both as a victim and a cause of climate change - at the UN’s climate change conference in Doha have been postponed until next year. 

Agriculture is a contentious and emotionally fraught issue. It results in the emission of major greenhouses gases, such as nitrous oxide and methane; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates agriculture accounts for 13.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

But climate change also threatens agriculture, which most developing countries’ populations rely on for income. The impact of climate change also threatens global food security; projections show that yields from food crops could decline by five percent for each degree Celsius increase in global warming. Many poor farmers are already experiencing the impact of increasingly variable rainfall.

Because of sharp divisions over the kind of support agriculture needs, little progress has been made in addressing these issues in the new climate deal being negotiated under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Some at the UN talks - known as the 18th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP18) - see agricultural issues playing a more dominant role in reducing global warming. These participants emphasize the need to reduce agriculture-related emissions.

At the same time, developing countries are arguing they need more money and better technology to help farmers adapt to the impact of climate change, including frequent droughts, flooding and increased soil salinity.

Adaptation or mitigation?

Representatives from developing countries, including the Africa group of negotiators, had lobbied hard to place agriculture in the adaptation section of the text being negotiated in the 2011 talks in Durban. This would have resulted in a focus on helping farmers in poorer countries adapt to climate change rather than a focus on reducing agriculture-related emissions.

''The issue has been stalled primarily due to developed countries’ reluctance to provide funds for agricultural adaptation in developing countries''

But despite being one of the sectors most vulnerable to climate change, agriculture is still not a part of the agenda - a sore point with developing countries and NGOs. Instead, in a compromise, countries decided the issue should be discussed at the UNFCCC's Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA).

Rashmi Mistry, the economic justice campaign advisor for Oxfam, explained that the countries settled for a discussion at SBSTA rather than to giving it a formal place in the agenda, which would have resulted in more prolonged battles.

ActionAid International’s Harjeet Singh explained that developing countries have a “deep concern” that rich countries are trying to open the way to establishing agricultural carbon markets and for their private sector to sell emissions-reducing technologies to the developing world, rather than providing financial support and technological assistance to help poorer countries adapt.

Industrialized countries want agriculture discussions to focus on both mitigating climate change and adaptation, says Mistry. But poorer countries are concerned that the developed world will end up prioritizing the goal of mitigation while funds and technology for adaptation are overlooked.


Some affluent countries have been backing a “climate-smart” agriculture concept announced by the World Bank during the 2011 climate change conference in Durban. It aims to get small farmers to adopt agricultural practices such as low-tillage, which traps carbon in the soil and prevents its re-entry into the atmosphere (also known as soil carbon sequestration). The carbon could then be sold as credits on a carbon market.

Think-tanks like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy have pointed out that sustainable agriculture can increase the sequestration of carbon in the soil, but that it is difficult and costly to measure. The funds should instead be used to help countries adapt to climate change, they suggest.

In the first week of the COP18 talks in Doha, the Gambia called for a comprehensive work programme to support agriculture development for the least developed countries, reported Hilary Chiew of the nonprofit Third World Network. Chiew said the Gambia urged industrialized countries to support and expedite work on addressing loss and damage caused by climate change, including agricultural loss and damage.

Egypt reported that it could not afford to spend resources on reducing emissions from agriculture, which is already under severe pressure from climate change.  

Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, told IRIN that the issue has been stalled primarily due to developed countries’ reluctance to provide funds for agricultural adaptation in developing countries. “For us, agriculture in the talks is an adaptation issue.”

With the arrival of political heads on Tuesday, she said there would likely be some momentum on this. “I am optimistic we will find a way forward.”

Oxfam’s Mistry says participants will have to settle for an adaptation focus on agriculture in developing countries, as an overwhelming poor population depends on it for food and income. Industrialized countries, which have abundant resources and huge commercial farms and livestock populations, could make mitigation a focus in their own agriculture.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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