Agriculture and climate change: A complicated relationship

Agriculture and food systems have a unique relationship with climate change. While it is among the most vulnerable sector in the economy to a changing climate, agriculture and food production itself substantially contribute to climate change, explains Lee Ann Jackson, Head of the Agro-food Trade and Markets Division at the OECD. Banner image: Shutterstock/Bits And Splits
Agriculture and climate change: A complicated relationship
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Globally, the entire food supply chain is responsible for close to a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with a large part coming directly from on-farm emissions, but also indirectly from land use change – for example, through deforestation. As other sectors increasingly take actions to decarbonise, the world cannot reach Net Zero by 2050 unless agriculture and food systems make a fair and proportionate contribution to climate mitigation. How can this can be done, and how can governments, the private sector, and civil society work together to achieve this goal?

As other sectors increasingly take actions to decarbonise, the world cannot reach Net Zero by 2050 unless agriculture and food systems make a fair and proportionate contribution to climate mitigation.

 Agriculture and food systems provide multiple climate mitigation routes

Agriculture and food systems could play a far more important role in combating climate change. Reducing direct on-farm emissions from agricultural production can be achieved through sustainable productivity growth - producing more with less inputs and impacts - including through greater deployment of new technologies, and improvements in farm management. The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031 showed that increasing productivity by 28% would allow meeting the Zero Hunger Sustainable Development Goals target, while also reducing emissions by 2030. Better farming practices can also enhance the significant carbon sink provided by agricultural soils, delivering additional productivity co-benefits. And forest protection, coupled with improved yields, can limit land use change emissions driven by the expansion of agriculture into forest lands and other carbon rich ecosystems.

Also on the Forum Network: What can the internet teach us about resilient food systems? by Ricardo Salvador, Director and Senior Scientist, Food & Environment Program, Union of Concerned Scientists

We are all experiencing the consequences of a food system that can be disrupted or completely cut off at a single point—the true test is how it performs under stressful and unexpected conditions, not just the optimum. 

Deeper structural change will also have to take place to reduce the carbon footprint of agricultural production, requiring a food systems perspective that also embraces transformations along the supply chain and in food demand patterns. Shifts in consumption trends can help to reduce the emissions-intensity of food, and also reduce deforestation and biodiversity losses due to the expansion of agricultural land. Actions encouraging consumers to limit food waste and overconsumption can also help to mitigate agricultural emissions, by reducing the volume of production needed.

Policy reforms and larger investment in R&D, innovation and technology are needed

Yet, current policies in agriculture are much more focused on short term responses to global crises rather than long term challenges. The 2022 edition of the OECD Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation report shows that globally, government policies support the agricultural sector with USD 800 billion a year. But only a small part of this support is going to investments in infrastructure and R&D, despite the overwhelming need. Instead, significant support encourages production of high-emission products and is provided by policies that have the greatest potential to harm the environment, distort markets, and are not tailored to efficiently support farmers most in need. 

What can governments do?

The message is clear: business as usual is not going to work. Governments should urgently phase out those policies which have a strong potential to harm the environment. Governments should also redirect funding towards R&D and other public goods, with money being spent on emission-saving innovations to create new mitigation technologies including new seed varieties and animal breeds more resistant to extreme events. Strong partnerships between public and private investors will accelerate the development of such technologies.

Currently, agricultural emissions tend to be excluded from most economy-wide carbon pricing schemes.

To incentivise the rapid move towards low-emissions agriculture, a pricing system for agricultural GHG emissions should also be put in place, as such instruments are the most efficient way to minimize the abatement burden for the sector (taking into consideration the varying cost of emission reductions among producers). However, currently, agricultural emissions tend to be excluded from most economy-wide carbon pricing schemes.

Broader food system measures include provision of information and incentives to encourage consumers to shift to better-adapted and lower-emission food products, and reduce food loss and waste. The private sector also has a key role to play along the food supply chain, with many initiatives having the potential to impact both supply chains and demand levers.

Tackling the climate change challenge in agriculture and food systems promises to be a complex task. Some policies to transform agricultural production systems may create trade-offs with food security and nutrition for consumers and livelihoods for farmers. This means that social safety net policies targeting farmers and households most in need should accompany such climate policies. Stronger resilience toolkits will also be needed to facilitate agriculture’s adaptation to a world of diverse risks and increasing extreme weather events and natural disasters. However, there is considerable scope for action with innovation, a key part of transformative solutions.

To learn more, read also the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031
a consensus assessment of the ten-year prospects for agricultural commodity and fish markets at national, regional, and global levels, and reference for forward-looking policy analysis and planning.
Learn more about the impact of the OECD Meeting of Agriculture Ministers, which took place 3-4 November, where more than 45 Ministers of Agriculture from OECD Member and Non-Member countries agreed on concrete actions to contribute to Building Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems in a Changing Environment: Shared Challenges, Transformative Solutions

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Go to the profile of Gian Luca Bagnara
9 months ago

Agriculture can contribute to carbon capture through Emission savings from soil carbon accumulation via improved agricultural management (esca) and adjusted with biodiversity index (organic matter content)

Adjusted soil carbon accumulation via improved agricultural management (esca) in terms of g CO2eq/MJ should use the following formula to calculate their actual values:

esca = (CSA – CSR ) x 3.664 x 106 x 1/n x 1/p x B x N – ef


CSR is the mass of soil carbon stock per unit area associated with the reference crop management practice in Mg of C per ha.

CSA is the mass of soil estimated carbon stock per unit area associated with the actual crop management practices after at least 10 years of application in Mg of C per ha.

3,664 is the quotient obtained by dividing the molecular weight of CO2 (44,010 g/mol) by the molecular weight of carbon (12,011 g/mol) in g CO2eq/g C.

N is the period (in years) of the cultivation of the crop considered.

P is the productivity of the crop (measured as MJ biofuel or bioliquid energy per ha per year).

B = index of biodiversity measured as Mj of organic matter per Ha per year

N = fixation of N in soil by leguminoses is a parameter to evaluate the quality of soil

Ef emissions from the increased fertilisers or herbicide use