Ranvir S. Nayar
As it is responsible for 22 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the agriculture, forestry and other land use sector is one of the largest contributors to the global warming that has gripped the entire planet over the past few years. Not only is it a large contributor to climate change, but agriculture and the agrifood industry is also highly vulnerable to the vagaries of weather that have become regular occurrences around the world.
And since agriculture is the primary, if not the only, source of income for more than 2.6 billion people, of whom nearly 90 percent live in poor or low-income nations, the devastation caused by changing weather on harvests has widespread ramifications not only for consumers around the world, but even more so for the billions that depend on them for their livelihood.
Though farming has been around almost since the advent of humankind, the rapid rise in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the sector has come only since the 20th century, just like it has for industry, energy, transport and practically any other segment. And, like all these sectors, the main culprits have been those in the rich countries, where farms have been taken over by large corporate interests, whose sole interest is in maximizing the output from farming or animal husbandry without looking at the cost to the environment.
In the developing world, barring a minuscule minority, almost all the farmers are subsistence farmers who not only have a marginal land holding, but are also entirely dependent upon each harvest for survival. They are far from looking to make a heavy profit from their farms. As these farmers cannot even afford chemical inputs like fertilizers or pesticides, which are liberally used by larger farmers and which have their own extensive carbon footprints, agriculture in most low-income countries is low in greenhouse gas emissions. Also, unlike the large cattle-rearing factories that abound in most developed countries, small farmers in developing countries are lucky to have a head of cattle or two and, hence, the methane emissions they cause, at least on a per capita basis, are only a fraction of those produced in a single cattle ranch or meat factory in the rich world.
Not only are the farmers in poor nations not responsible for the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gas emissions, but they and their families are also far more vulnerable to the ravages of climate change and the extreme weather events that have taken a huge toll on farming and other aspects of life in the past few decades. This is due to several factors. First and foremost, because of the better infrastructure and technology, agriculture in rich countries is more resilient to climate change and its vagaries, as timely forecasts and the better management of resources can limit the potential damage in most cases.
Also, the large farms and agrifood industries in rich nations have insurance companies to help them recoup their losses, in addition to the generous payouts their governments resort to in the event of natural disasters such as floods and droughts. In contrast, farmers in developing nations – especially in the Small Island Developing States, the least developed countries and the low-income countries – lack not just the insurance cover in case of failed harvests, but they also get little or no support at all from the public authorities, even though, for most of them, it is an existential issue whenever their crops are damaged.
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, there are adequate mitigation and adaptation measures that exist and, if implemented properly, they could go a long way toward limiting the damage or risk that farmers in poor countries face. It adds that building sustainable and resilient agrifood systems is fundamental to tackling the climate crisis, food insecurity and biodiversity loss. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a multilateral body of scientists that has been mandated by the UN to track climate change and suggest solutions, says conservation, improved management and the restoration of forests and other ecosystems offer the best opportunity to counteract the economic damage caused by the climate-related disasters that farmers face.
But it also raises the question of the various hurdles that exist, including local rules and policies. One of the biggest challenges for the developing world, which impacts the governments as much as the farmers, is a paucity of funds. Another challenge is the lack of access to the technological solutions that already exist and which can go a long way toward mitigating or even preventing damage caused to farms by climate change. While farmers and their dependents are obviously seriously impacted by a failed harvest, its effects are not limited to them. Poor harvests have severe implications for billions of others who live precariously, as the slightest price rise or food shortage can push them into extreme poverty, malnutrition or even starvation. Incidents of starvation and malnutrition have registered significant rises across the world, even in rich countries, where recent record food price inflation has led to a rise in food insecurity.
Just as the threat posed by global warming and climate change is a challenge the world has to face together, helping the 2.6 billion people who depend on agriculture for their livelihood and the billions of others who are or may soon be severely impacted by food insecurity must be a united effort. This can take place through the transfer of know-how and technology, as well as some funding, allowing the farmers in poor countries to take the necessary mitigatory and adaptive measures to protect themselves and the rest of the world to the extent that it can be done.