Arguments against a proposed programme of work on agriculture under the UNFCCC’s scientific advice committee (SBSTA)

An agriculture work programme may sound attractive to those who are concerned about issues like:

  • Agriculture emissions increase climate change – and agriculture is profoundly affected by climate change
  • Agriculture has a severe impact on forests
  • Soils can store a great deal of carbon - but does that mean there should be a soil carbon market?

Others cite the need to support peasants, “smallholder farmers”, local production and food sovereignty. They want a programme of work on agriculture on condition that such issues are prioritised and that the programme addresses adaptation equally with mitigation. Several Parties and international institutions advocate an agriculture work programme with the aim of using agriculture and soil carbon to offset emissions. The aim is to link agriculture and REDD+ under the title of climate-smart agriculture and apply the “integrated landscape approach”. This could lead to every aspect of agriculture, indeed the whole landscape, being measured in terms of carbon, even though there are serious scientific questions about the validity, let alone the possibility, of this approach. In any case, there are major risks with trying to address agriculture in the current climate negotiations:

  • Climate talks are focused on carbon rather than small-scale food providers and food sovereignty.
  • Emission trade instead of reduction: The North is looking for opportunities to offset emissions not reduce them. This would delay the real and immediate emission reductions that smallscale agriculture particularly needs.1
  • Experience with emission trading in agriculture to date: For example, half of the CDM projects in Mexico are linked to industrial pig farms, polluting Mexican ecosystems and landscapes, harming people’s health and animals’ welfare. Beneficiary is a multinational trading company, Cargill, which offsets emissions and sells feed.2
  • No solid finance: The price of carbon is very low and falling, given the refusal of rich countries to agree to any meaningful caps on emissions. Market analysts have predicted that the carbon price of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme may drop to € 3 per tonne of CO2e, while the voluntary carbon markets trade at around $6 per tonne and the value of CDM credits is dropping. The IPCC thinks that even at a price of $ 20-100 per t CO2e, there is little potential to finance improved land management methods.
  • The World Bank’s showcase Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, for example, has costs of US$30 per farmer per year, according to the Project Information Note submitted to the WB prior to its approval. Emission trading yields around US$1 per farmer per year.3 Thus, around 97 percent of the project costs will continue to be paid from other sources, in particular with public funds from the Swedish government. Yet there have been no significant offers of new climate finance from northern countries. The Green Belt Movement of Kenya reported on 2nd December that: ‘the investments needed for these projects are more than the financial returns from the carbon credits’.
  • Genetic engineering technology: Conservation tillage, promoted as a mitigation method even though unproven, currently involves mostly large-scale monoculture production with blanket spraying of ever-increasing amounts of agrochemicals. Large numbers of small food providers have been driven off the land over the last 15 years in Argentina, for example. Remaining populations find their own health and that of their animals and crops seriously compromised. In addition, ecosystems have been negatively impacted. There is now pressure to introduce genetically modified soy and maize in Africa on a large scale.
  • GMOs are also promoted under the guise of adaptation, such as the promise of so-called 'climate-ready crops'.
  • Biochar: The biochar industry has been promoting mitigation through burying charcoal in the soil. There are significant scientific doubts about the permanence of biochar as a carbon sink. Major concerns also exist over the sourcing of organic matter to turn into charcoal, and the implications for land grabs and deforestation.
  • Land grabbing: Making soil carbon a tradable asset could increase speculation in land.
  • Measuring, Reporting and Verifying (MRV) of soil carbon is highly contested and complex. The relationships between soils, different farming practices and the atmosphere are still poorly understood and there are major scientific uncertainties in relation to soil carbon emissions and sequestration. Moreover, soil sampling and measurements are expensive. Major assumptions are therefore proposed instead of measurement.

How smart is Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA)?

  • It is sometimes thought that climate-smart agriculture is focused on small farmers, and that “including agriculture in the Durban outcome” will help generate a shift away from industrial agriculture or make food production more “climate-efficient”.
  • It is even claimed that CSA investments will help to keep food prices down.
  • However, climate efficient could also mean replacing smallscale agriculture and food provision with industrial agriculture. FAO reports that industrial US milk production is more climate efficient than extensive, small-scale milk production in India.4 Tree plantations, industrial production, conservation tillage could all defined as climate smart.
  • The aim is to link agriculture with REDD+ under climate-smart agriculture.5
  • It could mean existing funding including Overseas Development Aid (ODA) and other government funding for agriculture and rural development being diverted to 'Climate-Smart Agriculture’.6
  • Landscape approach the application of this term is meant to address agriculture and forests together. It basically means that the entire landscape could be defined in terms of carbon and put into the market
  • Industrial agriculture is already thriving under the UNFCCC, with large scale pig farms and palm oil plantations benefitting under the CDM. Conclusion: In Durban, any decision to have a SBSTA Work Programme on Agriculture is basically a decision to establish Climate-Smart Agriculture and include soil carbon in emission trading. SBSTA is inevitably linked with emission trading and Climate-Smart Agriculture. SBSTA is not about adaptation or food sovereignty. In addition, Climate-Smart Agriculture aims to subject all agricultural funding to an extremely unreliable and contested GHG accounting.

No SBSTA Work Programme on Agriculture should be agreed in Durban.

The primary need is for political will and fulfilment by industrialised countries of the commitments they have already made. Agriculture must not be allowed to distract negotiations from this need.

  • 1. See Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report:
  • 2. Agriculture and Climate Change - Real Problems, False Solutions, by Helena Paul, Almuth Ernsting, Stella Semino, Susanne Gura & Antje Lorch, EcoNexus, Biofuelwatch, Grupo de Reflexion Rural, NOAH - Friends of the Earth Denmark, and The Development Fund Norway (December 2009)
  • 3. Shefali Sharma, Steve Suppan, Elusive Promises of the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, IATP, September 2011
  • 4. FAO (2010) Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector. A Life Cycle Assessment
  • 5. FAO (November 2011) Building Bridges between REDD+ and sustainable agriculture: Addressing agriculture’s role as a driver of deforestation
  • 6. Meridian Institute (June 2011) Agriculture and Climate Change. A Scoping Report