Report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change

Guest Blog:

Doreen Stabinsky is a Professor of Global Environmental Politics at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME. She is also a consultant and advisor on agriculture and climate change

“On a planet with sufficient food for all, a billion people go hungry. Another billion over-consume, increasing risks from chronic diseases.”

Last week, yet another high-level report on a topic of global concern was published by yet another group of eminent experts – this one on food security and climate change. The eminent experts – the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change – were assembled by a group of donor countries and the World Bank for the one-year task of producing the report and its recommendations.

High-profile attention to an issue as urgent as climate change impacts on agriculture is certainly welcome. With countries globally lagging in their attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will prevent dangerous temperature increases and the Kyoto Protocol gasping its last breaths as industrialized countries jump ship from legal obligations to reduce their emissions, someone needs to ring alarm bells about what increased temperatures and changing precipitation patterns mean for global food supplies.

Researchers at Stanford University last year published in Science magazine findings that global yields in maize and wheat had already decreased 3.8 to 5.5% respectively due to increasing temperatures. Current projections are for average global temperature increases of between 2.5 and 5° Celsius (4.5-9° Fahrenheit) before the end of this century. The Commission warns that: Climate change above 3°C risks overall decreases in the global food production capacity that would be profoundly destabilizing even in places where food production remains adequate locally.”

For those looking for a brief, comprehensive introduction to the impacts of climate change on agriculture and food security, the report provides a well-referenced, solid and more-or-less balanced treatment. Industrial-scale, chemical-dependent agriculture (albeit disguised as “sustainable intensification”) has its place in the report, as do resource-conserving technologies and agroecological methods of production. As indicated by my opening quote, the report considers the food security challenges of both poverty and affluence. Notably, the Commission takes on the issue of food waste, writing for example that in the UK, “approximately 22% of household food and drink is wasted.”

Yet after a very thorough establishment of the problems to be addressed, the report proposes some oddly non-sequitur recommendations. The number one recommendation? Establish a “work programme” on agriculture under the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The lead on food security and climate change policy at the global level isn’t to be taken by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and its Committee on World Food Security (which aren’t even mentioned in the list of possible relevant international institutions). It’s to be handled by an obscure, hyper-politicized subsidiary body of the climate change convention.

Expert reports are not immune to global political squabbles. In fact, expert commissions are sometimes established in order to obscure the politics behind conflicts through unbiased, objective, “expert” advice. With the bizarre prioritization of its recommendations, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change provides hints that such an end is indeed at least part of its raison d’être.

At the global political level there is an ongoing fight between rich and poor countries on taking responsibility for action to stem the global climate crisis. Rich countries and the World Bank (the donors for the work of the Commission) are keen to have a work program on agriculture under the UNFCCC. They want to establish a mechanism through which poor countries do the work of reducing greenhouse gas levels through storing carbon in their soils and rich countries are relieved of the burden of reducing their own agricultural emissions. Up to this point, poor countries are not agreeing to that mode of “burden sharing,” not least because permanent emission reductions on the part of major emitters are essential to stemming the threat of climate change and soil carbon sequestration will only ever be uncertain and temporary.

(In addition to funding the Commission, the World Bank paid for a series of meetings over the course of 2011, all of which coincidentally concluded that a UNFCCC SBSTA work program was necessary. The findings of all these “expert” meetings have been exhaustively reiterated by rich country governments in the climate negotiations on a work program.)

Putting recommendation 1 and its obscure political messages aside, the report does provide useful recommendations, though means of implementation are less clear. Some of the recommendations are even bold and novel (for international policymakers anyway), such as recommendations to reshape food access and consumption patterns and to reduce loss and waste in food systems. In recommendation number two, the Commission highlights the need to significantly raise the level of global investment in sustainable agriculture.

Undoubtedly, however, given the seriousness of the challenges ahead of us, the most important message of the report lies in its final call to action: Without a global commitment to reducing GHG emissions from all sectors, including agriculture, no amount of agricultural adaptation will be sufficient under the destabilized climate of the future. While change will have significant costs, the cost of remaining on the current path is already enormous and growing. Given the already intolerable conditions of many livelihoods and ecosystems, and the time lag between R&D and widespread application, urgent action must be taken now.”

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