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For a large number of developing countries, agriculture remains the single most important sector. Climate change has the potential to damage irreversibly the natural resource base on which agriculture depends, with grave consequences for food security. However, agriculture is the sector that has the potential to transcend from being a problem to becoming an essential part of the solution to climate change provided there is a more holistic vision of food security, agricultural mitigation, climate-change adaptation and agriculture's pro-poor development contribution. What is required is a rapid and significant shift from conventional, industrial, monoculture-based and high-external-input dependent production towards mosaics of sustainable production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. The required transformation is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural systems. However, the sheer scale at which modified production methods would have to be adopted, the significant governance and market-structure challenges at national and international level and the considerable difficulties involved in measuring, reporting and verifying reductions in GHG emissions pose considerable challenges.
Global warming has the potential to damage irreversibly the natural resource base on which agriculture depends, with grave consequences for food security. Climate change could also significantly constrain economic development in those developing countries that largely rely on agriculture. Therefore, meeting the dual challenge of achieving food security and other developmental co-benefits, on the one hand, and mitigating and adapting to climate change, on the other hand, requires political commitment at the highest level. What is more, time is becoming the most important scarcity factor in dealing with climate change.
According to FAO (2009f), despite increased world food production in the last few decades, the global effort to meet the Millennium Development Goal of reducing hunger by half by 2015 now appears beyond reach. As a matter of fact, the number of people suffering from chronic hunger has increased from under 800 million in 1996 to over one billion recently.
Adequate nutrition and sound agricultural practices are central to human and environmental well-being (Raskin et al., 2010: 2642). Agriculture provides essential nourishment for people and is the necessary basis for many economic activities. In most developing countries, agriculture accounts for between 20–60 per cent of GDP. In agriculture-based developing countries, it generates on average almost 30 per cent of GDP and employs 65 per cent of the labour force. The industries and services linked to agriculture in value chains often account for more than 30 per cent of GDP, even in largely urbanized countries. Of the developing world's 5.5 billion people, 3 billion live in rural areas – nearly half of humanity. Of these rural inhabitants, an estimated 2.5 billion are in households involved in agriculture, and 1.5 billion are in smallholder households. Agriculture provides the livelihood for approximately 2.6 billion people (i.e. some 40 per cent of global population) (World Bank, 2008 and Herren et al., 2011).
The current system of industrial agriculture (and related international trade), productive as it has been in recent decades, still leaves 1.3 billion people under-nourished and poverty stricken, 70 per cent of whom live in rural areas. MDG 1 aims at eradicating extreme hunger and poverty. One of the most effective ways of halving both the number of hungry and poor by 2015 is to take the necessary steps of transition towards more sustainable forms of agriculture that nourish the land and people and provide an opportunity for decent, financially rewarding and gender equal jobs. Meeting health targets from MDG 3 and 6 is also linked to major changes in agriculture, resulting in a more diverse, safe, nutritious and affordable diet. Therefore the problems of climate change, hunger and poverty, economic, social and gender inequity, poor health and nutrition, and environmental sustainability are inter-related and need to be solved by leveraging agriculture’s multi-functionality (see figure 1) (Herren et al., 2011). Farmers (including pastoralists and agro-pastoralists) should not simply be seen as maximizers of food and agricultural commodity production, but also as managers of the food- and agricultural commodity-producing eco-systems.
According to Rundgren, agriculture plays four important roles in climate change:
- Farming emits greenhouse gases (GHGs).
- Changes in agricultural practices have a big potential to be carbon sinks.
- Changes in land use, caused by farming have great impact on GHG emissions.
- Agriculture can produce energy and bio-derived chemicals and plastics, which can replace fossil fuel (Rundgren, 2011).