Supporting climate-friendly agriculture

Worldwatch Institute
This summer, record temperatures and limited rainfall parched vast areas of U.S. cropland, and with Earth’s surface air temperature projected to rise 0.69 degrees Celsius by 2030, global
food production will be even more unpredictable, according to new
research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute (
Although agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change,
contributing an estimated 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas
emissions, when done sustainably it can be an important key to
mitigating climate change, write report authors Danielle Nierenberg
and Laura Reynolds.
Because of its reliance on healthy soil, adequate water, and a
delicate balance of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the
atmosphere, farming is the human endeavor most vulnerable to the
effects of climate change. But agriculture’s strong interrelationships
with both climatic and environmental variables also make it a
significant playerin reducing climate-altering emissions as well as
helping the world adapt to the realities of a warming planet.
“The good news is that agriculture can hold an important key to
mitigating climate change,” said Reynolds, Worldwatch’s Food and
Agriculture Research Associate. “Practices such as using animal manure
rather than artificial fertilizer, planting trees on farms to reduce
soil erosion and sequester carbon, and growing food in cities all hold
huge potential for reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that
the global agricultural sector could potentially reduce and remove 80
to 88 percent of the carbon dioxide that it currently emits. By
adopting more-sustainable approaches, small-scale agriculture in
developing countries has the potential to contribute 70 percent of
agriculture’s global mitigation of climate change. And many of these
innovations have the potential to be replicated, adapted, and scaled
up for application on larger farms, helping to improve water
availability, increase diversity, and improve soil quality, as well as
mitigate climate change.
This report, Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture: Supporting
Climate-Friendly Food Production,discusses six sustainable approaches
to land and water use, in both rural and urban areas, that are helping
farmers and other food producers mitigate or adapt to climate
change—and often both. They are:
Building Soil Fertility: Alternatives to heavy chemical use in
agriculture, such as avoiding unnecessary tilling or raising both
crops and livestock on the same land, can help to drastically reduce
the total amount of energy expended to produce a crop or animal,
reducing overall emissions.
Agroforestry: Because trees remove carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere, keeping them on farms whenever possible can help mitigate
climate change. Agroforestry also keeps the soil healthier and more
resilient by maximizing the amount of organic matter, microorganisms,
and moisture held within it. Agroforestry also provides shade for
livestock and certain crops, and creates habitats for animals and
insects, such as bees, that pollinate many crops.
Urban Farming: Growing food in cities can mitigate the greenhouse
gas emissions released from the transport, processing, and storage of
food destined for urban populations. Urban agriculture also increases
the total area of non-paved land in cities, making urban landscapes
more resilient to flooding and other weather shocks, while improving
the aesthetic value of these landscapes.
Cover Cropping/Green Manure: Cover cropping, also known as green
manure, is the practice of strategically planting crops that will
deliver a range of benefits to a farming system, and often plowing
these crops into the soil instead of harvesting their organic matter.
Planting cover crops improves soil fertility and moisture by making
soil less vulnerable to drought or heat waves. Cover crops also serve
as a critical deterrent against pests and diseases that affect crops
or livestock, such as corn root worm or Rift Valley fever,
particularly as warmer temperatures enable these organisms to survive
in environments that were previously too cold for them.
Improving Water Conservation and Recycling: Innovations in water
conservation, including recycling wastewater in cities, using precise
watering techniques such as drip irrigation rather than sprinklers,
and catching and storing rainwater, all help to reduce the global
strain on already-scarce water resources.
Preserving Biodiversity and Indigenous Breeds: Growing diverse and
locally adapted indigenous crops, such as yams, quinoa, and cassava,
can provide a source of income and improve farmers’ chances of
withstanding the effects of climate change, such as heat stress,
drought, and the expansion of disease and pest populations. Preserving
plant and animal biodiversity also reduces farmers’ overreliance on a
small number of commodity crops that make them vulnerable to shifts in
global markets.
By tapping into the multitude of climate-friendly farming practices
that already exist, agriculture can continue to provide food for the
world’s population, as well as be a source of livelihood for the 1.3
billion people who rely on farming for income and sustenance.If
agriculture is to play a positive role in the global fight against
climate change, however, agricultural practices that mitigate or adapt
to climate change will need to receive increased research, attention,
and investment in the coming years.

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