At BSR and Field to Market’s event on agriculture and climate change in COP21’s Gallery of Solutions Wednesday, Keith Alverson, a board member of the U.S. National Corn Growers Association, shared a photo of his son: "He is why I'm here,” Alverson said. “My wife and I are the sixth generation of farmers. I hope he will be seventh."
Alverson’s story underscored an important point about addressing climate change through the agriculture sector: The practices of individual farmers and growers matter, and supporting farmers in changing those practices means understanding what drives them. For some farmers, like Alverson, solving global warming is important because it ensures the long-term resilience of their farms and family businesses. For others, adopting sustainable practices matters because it can help them boost yields and ensure their economic stability.
While the agriculture industry contributes between 10 and 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the industry has the opportunity to mitigate 20 percent of emissions through better land management. Doing this, however, requires that the entire value chain—including farmers and growers, food and beverage companies, policymakers, and civil society—work together to develop innovative approaches and new technologies to contribute solutions to climate change.
This was a major theme of our event, which featured government officials including U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack; food and beverage companies General Mills, Kellogg Company, Mars, PepsiCo, and Unilever; farmers and growers; and NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy.
The event also highlighted how the agriculture industry’s action on climate change could pay off in multiple ways, contributing to the increased productivity of farms, supporting the livelihoods of the more than one billion farmers globally, improving the quality of air and water, and strengthening food security by ensuring the long-term sustainability of farms and crops.
The Opportunity: How Agriculture Can Help Solve Climate Change
During his address, USDA Secretary Vilsack announced the launch of a new White House report that describes 10 “building blocks” for climate-smart agriculture and forestry that will reduce net emissions by about 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year by 2025. The USDA is providing incentives for farmers and ranchers who make efforts to improve soil health, nutrient management, livestock management, conservation of sensitive lands, and stewardship of private and public forest lands.
Vilsack said the U.S. government is rewarding farmers and ranchers for taking these voluntary steps because “the real action happens where private businesses put these plans in place and give the government something to measure.”
Throughout our event, speakers showcased some of the climate mitigation measures being taken for commodities including rice, potatoes, palm oil, and soy.
Marijke Mars, a special advisor for Mars Food, noted that addressing climate change in the production of rice—which provides a livelihood for 140 million people, is a food staple for half of the world’s population, and contributes 10 percent of total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions—involves partnerships across the industry, as well as with government, NGOs, and academia. For instance, Mars is working with the United Nations Environment Program’s Sustainable Rice Platform—which recently launched the world’s first sustainable rice cultivation standard—in order to meet the company’s goal of producing sustainable rice by 2020.
John Church, General Mills’ supply chain executive vice president, who described addressing climate change as a “pre-competitive issue,” said it is important for companies to work with farmers in their supply chains to share data and best practices that can lead to improved performance. “We need to prove that sustainability leads to profitability leads to more sustainability.”
Unilever’s Global Advocacy Director for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security Alison Cairns agreed: “As a big company, you cannot forget that we need to ensure that sustainability really resonates with farmers.”
Nancy Kavazanjian, a Wisconsin farmer who serves on the United Soybean Board, said that idea is taking hold: In the United States, for instance, the percentage of conservation tillage, which helps with carbon sequestration, has increased from 17 percent to 63 percent over the past 30 years.
Some growers, like Alberta, Canada-based Chris Perry, whose potato farm is among PepsiCo’s suppliers, are employing new technologies that reduce both environmental impacts and business costs. In 2014, Perry built a biogas plant that has already generated twice the amount of electricity his farm requires in a single year. He also sequesters the exhaust from his tractors and uses drones to obtain real-time data on the farm.
The Role for Government and COP21
To scale up efforts like those Perry is taking, more investments are needed, which Perry said could come from a government policy that puts a price on carbon. “We need to live off the interest of this planet, not the capital,” he said.
Other speakers echoed the idea of government policies to incentivize sustainable practices. “Businesses can disrupt systems, but governments can transform them,” said Unilever’s Cairns.
Don McCabe, the president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Canada’s largest voluntary farm organization, made a specific plea to COP21 negotiators: “Let’s get COP21 to be a bumper crop and bring agriculture into the fold,” he said. “I’ll be 20 percent of the solution if you give me the right rules.”
At least one policymaker appears to be listening. During a special address at our event, COP21 President and French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius complimented the business community on its climate action and promised government leadership to follow: “We are behind you—not only the French government, but all of the international community—to reach positive negotiations,” he said. “You have done your job, and it’s up to us to do our job.”
To close the event, BSR Senior Vice President Eric Olson called for ambitious leadership from business and government: “When you're trying to move a whole system, going big and bold can be less risky and less expensive than going incremental."
Read more about the opportunity for agriculture to contribute to climate solutions in BSR’s report, “Climate Change: Implications for Agriculture.”