In partnership with UNEP

Low carbon agriculture

Shenggen Fan Tolulope Olofinbiyi

Shenggen Fan, Director General and Tolulope Olofinbiyi, Senior Research Analyst, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

3 July 2013 | Agriculture, Rio+20, Worldwide

The change to a green and better fed world depends on the development of low carbon agriculture. Improving food and nutrition security while protecting the earth’s natural resource base will require a smarter, more innovative, better focused and cost-effective approach.


World agriculture has reached a crossroads. Agriculture’s capacity to feed the world is being threatened by a combination of existing and emerging trends and challenges, even as global hunger and malnutrition remain pervasive. Rising incomes, changing population, demographics, and consumer preferences, growing natural resource constraints, increasing energy prices and a varying climate are redefining the global supply and demand of food. At the same time, almost 1 billion people remain undernourished globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). IFPRI’s Global Hunger Index for 2011 shows that more than 50 countries still have levels of hunger that are in the categories of serious, alarming, and extremely alarming. Moreover, over 2 billion people around the world continue to suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, important vitamins and minerals that are needed for good health.

The task ahead of global agriculture is not an easy one. As FAO estimates, agricultural production will have to increase by 70 per cent to meet the growing demand of a world population that has expanded by 40 per cent, and also to increase the daily average food consumption per capita to 3130 kilocalories by 2050. Yet, climate change poses a serious threat to future production of adequate and nutritious food in a sustainable manner.

Against this background, the realisation has come that business as usual is not sufficient to ensure food and nutrition security and safeguard the earth’s natural resource base, particularly in the face of climate change. Certainly, sustainable development is once again at the top of the global agenda. At the recent Rio+20 Conference, major stakeholders across the globe convened to discuss the move towards a green economy as a pathway to sustainable development.


Climate change and agriculture

The increase of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is raising the earth’s temperatures and inducing climatic changes. The effects of the increase of GHGs such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere have been observed around the world, with higher frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and natural disasters. Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to these climatic shifts. While climate change may be beneficial for a few farmers in some regions, many will face major challenges to maintain or even improve their productivity, which is required to ensure food security.

A less predictable climate, marked by extreme weather events and shifting seasons, will significantly increase poor farmers’ difficulties in managing other risks, thereby increasing their vulnerability. IFPRI research shows that developing countries, which are home to 98 per cent of the global hungry, are projected to suffer most from the impacts of climate change and bear up to 80 per cent of its costs. Additionally, climate change is expected to reduce crop yields and increase food prices.

"Climate change could cause maize, rice, and wheat prices to increase by 87, 31, and 43 per cent respectively"

Between 2010 and 2050, climate change could cause maize, rice, and wheat prices to increase by 87, 31, and 43 per cent respectively, under optimistic assumptions. Where the effects of climate change are perfectly mitigated, price increases would be smaller – about 33 per cent for maize, 18 per cent for rice, and 23 per cent for wheat. Climate change could also reduce average daily calorie availability per capita and impair general well-being. Under optimistic assumptions, it could increase the number of malnourished children by about 18 per cent by 2050.

To counter these effects and raise calorie consumption enough to offset the negative impacts of climate change on children’s well-being and health, IFPRI research estimates that global agricultural productivity investments of US$7.1 billion to 7.3 billion would be needed. 


Agriculture in a green economy

A green economy, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, is one that results in “improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”. Agriculture, particularly smallholder agriculture, has a crucial role to play in achieving green growth. In developing countries, the agriculture sector employs almost two-thirds of the labour force, as estimated by the World Bank. A large proportion of the world’s agricultural output is produced on small farms – in these countries, farms of less than two hectares. Yet smallholder farmers constitute the bulk of the poor and half of the world’s hungry, according to IFPRI estimates. Furthermore, a large part of these farmers are women, who play a key role in producing food and providing for the food and nutrition needs of their household, especially children. These poor small farmers, who rely on good climatic conditions to produce food and generate income, are the ones that will be particularly hard hit by climate change.

"Agriculture, particularly smallholder agriculture, has a crucial role to play in achieving green growth"

Agriculture is part of the climate change problem. As estimated by the World Bank, it contributes more than one-third of global GHG emissions, together with forestry and land-use change. Agriculture is also part of the solution, as it has a large potential for adapting to and mitigating climate change, thus contributing to the reduction of GHG emissions. Agriculture’s mitigation potential is cost-efficient and comparable to other large sectors such as industry, energy, and transport. The global mitigation potential of agriculture is worth between US$32 billion and US$420 billion, as indicated by IFPRI research. Exploiting this potential fully is increasingly important in order to create a low carbon agricultural sector that contributes to substantial reductions in hunger and poverty levels while emitting less GHG and protecting the environment. However, this potential must be harnessed in a way that is pro-poor and that benefits smallholder farmers and women.


A green and better fed world

While the shift to a green economy is a must, it must not be achieved at the cost of food and nutrition security. The goal of improving food and nutrition security while protecting the earth’s natural resource base will require an approach that is not ‘business as usual’ but ‘business as unusual’. Such an approach has to be smarter, more innovative, better focused, and cost-effective. The approach must include the following elements:

Low-carbon agriculture.Farmers, policy-makers, scientists and investors must develop ways for agriculture to contribute to a low carbon economy while helping to achieve food security on a large scale and in a sustainable manner. Low carbon agriculture initiatives are already being implemented in different parts of the developing and developed world. However, new policy and expanded market incentives are needed to encourage a significant switch to low carbon agriculture. Technological innovations that help measure, track, and map GHG emissions must be developed to better target and monitor the mitigation potential held in agriculture. These innovations are necessary steps towards making low carbon agriculture a technologically and economically feasible option to small farmers across the world. In addition to developing GHG emission reductions measurement tools, it is important to expand GHG emission reductions markets to agriculture.

A new nexus approach.To integrate food and nutrition security into sustainable development, the silo approach is not acceptable any more. Despite the fact that trade-offs between green growth, environmental sustainability, and food productivity exists, it is important to explore and develop complementary solutions. Several agricultural practices in Africa, such as combinations of inorganic fertiliser, mulching, and manure, offer triple-wins in terms of productivity, smallholder incomes, and sustainability. Technological innovations in the agriculture, water, and energy sectors are critical to increase productivity, provide adaptive buffers against emerging challenges, and enhance the nutritional value of food crops.

New measures to evaluate cross-sectoral impacts.The full costs and benefits of natural resource use in food production have not been taken into consideration by stakeholders in their decision-making. To send the right signals to all actors along the food value chain, the prices of food and natural resources must fully reflect social and environmental costs and benefits, such as the cost of environmental degradation, or the benefits of ecosystem services. To achieve this, new measures are needed to track, monitor, and evaluate impacts across sectors. Economic incentives, taxation, and regulation will also be needed. Mechanisms to track, monitor, and evaluate cross-sectoral impacts are crucial to build up evidence for sound policies.

New talents at the country level.Strengthening countries’ capacity to design strategies for agricultural development and food and nutrition security will be vital. Greater technical and financial support should be allocated towards establishing institutions for the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies related to food and nutrition security. IFPRI’s Regional Strategic Analysis and Knowledge Support System and Country Strategy Support Programs, for example, are designed to support country-led development strategies and have been doing so in the last few years.

New players.New actors, such as the private sector, must be engaged because they play a key role in enhancing food and nutrition security. As evident during the Rio+20 Conference, these new actors have become a major force in shaping discourses around green growth and broader development goals. For example, with the right incentives, the private sector can provide – at a greater scale – effective and sustainable investment, unique expertise, and innovation for achieving these goals.

In moving forward, co-ordination among all actors will be essential and research-based evidence will be critical for strategy development as well as policy formulation and implementation for a more inclusive green economy.

Shenggen Fan

Shenggen Fan

Shenggen Fan has been director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) since 2009. Dr. Fan joined IFPRI in 1995 as a research fellow, conducting extensive research on pro-poor development strategies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He led IFPRI’s program on public investment before becoming the director of the Institute’s Development Strategy and Governance Division in 2005. He is the Chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Food Security.

Tolulope Olofinbiyi

Tolulope Olofinbiyi

Tolulope Olofinbiyi joined IFPRI in March 2007 as a Senior Research Assistant in the Director General’s Office. She currently supports the Director General and Special Assistant to the Director General in research and outreach. She has an extensive background working in the agribusiness sector in Nigeria. While at Texas A&M and Fletcher, she also worked with Development Alternatives Inc. in Bethesda., MD.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

The IFPRI seeks sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty. IFPRI is one of 15 centres supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an alliance of 64 governments, private foundations, and international and regional organisations.