Because of its possible effects on climate change and on natural resource degradation, the way in which we produce our food is a globally important issue.
Because of its possible effects on climate change and on natural resource degradation, the way in which we produce our food is a globally important issue. Agriculture − including its contribution to deforestation and its use of fossil fuels – is said to account for almost one third of total greenhouse gas emissions.
On the other hand, it receives the brunt of unpredictable extreme climate events, such as floods and droughts, which have become more intense and frequent. Therefore, agriculture can be seen from both sides: as a cause and victim of climate change.
Sustainable agriculture should explicitly consider the dimension of climate change. Agriculture must decrease its contribution to climate change through production technologies and policies that take into account the local environment and the problems of bringing more land under cultivation. Even as it does that, agriculture needs to be adapted and made resilient to climate change threats.
Between now and 2050, an estimated 60% increase in food production is required, and 80% of this increase will have to come from further intensification of currently cultivated areas.
It should be noted that the rates of growth in yields of the major food crops – rice, maize and wheat – are all declining. Annual yield growth in rice and maize fell from more than 3% a year in 1980 to around 1% in 2005; yield growth in wheat decreased from about 5% to 2% a year in the same period.
The main challenge is how to develop a sustainable agriculture that is capable of intensifying production for food security and improved livelihoods for the rural poor, and that, at the same time, is resilient to climate change.
An increase in yields has to be supported by production systems that are more robust, stable and resilient to climate change, i. e., to droughts and floods in the short term and to consequences of global warming in the mid- and long-terms. Technologies and practices are available that can reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment, including by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while improving yields and livelihoods of the population in a sustainable manner.
The full implementation of sustainable agricultural production that is also adapted and resilient to climate change should consider all the sub-sectors – crop, livestock, forestry, fisheries, and aquaculture – and the three pillars of sustainability – environmental, social and economic – in a cross-sectoral and integrated way.
The practices and technologies listed below are fully sustainable, adapted and resilient to climate change, and will not penalize small-scale producers – if adequate public policies and incentives such as payments for providing environmental services are made available to them.
For instance, crop production should be integrated as much as possible with other production systems, not only for food and nutritional security, but also to conserve natural resources. More integrated production systems have already been successful in practice, such as integrated crop-livestock production, agroforestry, rice-fish production, sustainable mountain development, integrated coastal zone management, integrated dryland management, and watershed management, in line with participation of the local community, interdisciplinary research, and public-private partnerships.
There are some key points to be considered in the process of implementing sustainable agriculture. It must be demand driven, location specific, and the options and decisions should be done in a transparent and participatory manner. At the farm level, capacity building of producers is required to support the use of the principles of administration and entrepreneurship to promote access to credit and market, to decrease losses, waste and discards, to raise awareness of ecosystem services – nutrient cycling in soils, natural pest control, water quality – and to prevent degradation of natural resources.
In summary, a common conceptual and practical approach needs to be developed. More technologies and practices that can be applied to improve sustainability as well as adaptation and resilience to climate change need to be developed and selected for each specific situation and condition. The efforts to develop a strategy for a sustainable intensification of production that is also climate-smart has to be considered as a global issue, and as such, should have a high-level priority in the political and technical agenda of countries.
The following practices and technologies should be considered in an integrated manner:
• Use inputs – energy, chemicals, water – in a judicious way; use of balanced and precision animal feeding and nutrition; aquafeed management, associated with best production practices for crop, livestock, aquaculture and forestry.
• Conserve and use ecosystem services and biodiversity for increasing production, such as sustainable management of natural and planted forests for climate regulation, nutrient cycling in soils to improve fertility, natural biological control of insect pests and diseases, pollination, diversity of genetic resources and forest restoration.
• Manage soil health to enhance crop and forest nutrition with site-specific placement of chemical fertilizers, use of green manure, and low or no-tillage agriculture − also called conservation agriculture.
• Use irrigation water in a localized and efficient way to save water and conserve the quality of water by maintaining natural vegetation or forests at the margins of water bodies.
• Implement integrated animal health control and Integrated Pest Management (IPM), relying not only on chemicals, but on alternate methods of control.
• Select and use crops/varieties, livestock breeds, and aquatic species that are better adapted to specific agro-ecosystems and that are resilient to adverse conditions resulting from climate change.
• Use a wide range of crop species and varieties in rotation, sequences, and intercropping associated with aquaculture, livestock, and forestry, as much as possible, to increase diversity and complexity and, consequently, promote more stability and resilience to climate change.
• Develop and promote new technologies to improve production systems, such as biopesticides, machinery operated with renewable energy, nitrogen fixation by plants, electronic traceability of terrestrial and aquatic animals, information and communication tools to facilitate technology access, and so on.