Mitigation and adaptation: a perfect marriage made on farms

To feed a burgeoning global population, agricultural production has to more than double in the coming four decades, and it must do so within the expected climate-change-related stresses. Can this growth in production happen in a way that keeps greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane and others) to a minimum? And can it at the same time help farmers adapt to worsening climates?

Evidently so, but only if we focus on low-emission farming practices that also build ecological resilience.

According to Dr. Marja-Liisa Tapio-Biström of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation  (FAO), we need to pay particular attention to three types of resilience, in order to achieve a convergence of mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

 These are:

  • Ecosystem resilience, indicated by stable or increasing above- and below-the-ground biomass and organic matter;
  • Livelihood resilience, indicated by the income and assets of farm households remaining stable or getting better; and
  • Global resilience – indicated by stable or decreasing use of fossil fuels and non-organic inputs to agriculture.

Farming systems that engender these outcomes are efficient in water use; nutrient-balanced; energy- and waste-neutral; and high in biodiversity.

Tapio-Biström, who works within the Natural Resources Management and Environment department of the FAO, was speaking in Doha at a roundtable session of the 2012 Agriculture, Landscapes and Livelihoods Day (ALLDay 5) on 3 December 2012. Session panelists discussed the need for robust data and presented some technical solutions for measuring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in agricultural systems in developing countries.  

“The new demand for food will be most keenly felt in developing countries, whose farming systems are also the most vulnerable to climate change. For this reason, it is critical that increased production does not worsen the greenhouse gas emission problem,” Dr. Cheikh Mbow, climate change scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) told the forum.

“However, climate adaptation and mitigation in developing countries are not mutually exclusive,” he stressed.

“Intensification is important, but you have to be careful how you intensify your production. Inefficient use of resources is a major cause of agricultural emissions, and simply raising the efficiency of farmlands makes them less polluting.”

Mbow discussed the MICCA (Mitigation of Climate Change in Agriculture) example, a participatory approach developed by FAO and ICRAF to increase productivity while reducing farming’s environmental footprint.

He said measuring greenhouse emissions in the developing world, particularly on fragmented smallholder farming landscapes, is not simple.

Despite the difficulties and expense, however, Mbow said such data are necessary, since they allow countries to assess and monitor how they are performing against climate change mitigation and adaptation benchmarks. The data can also paint a picture of future food security scenarios.

“Measuring greenhouse emissions is not done just for the sake of it. The data can tell us how we are doing on the ‘2-degree target’ [the effort to limit future global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius], and how well landscapes are performing in maintaining soil fertility. Emissions data also relate to food security, as they are linked to land productivity; a system that is losing carbon is losing fertility, and therefore future productivity,” he explained.

Mbow was quick to add, however, that for greenhouse gas data to be useful, they need to be converted into knowledge and decision-making tools that can inform policies and national planning.

At the same forum, Samuel Nnah Ndobe presented the findings of a participatory  ‘payment for ecosystem services (PES)’ project in Nkolenyeng Community Forest in Cameroon, which is part of the Congo Basin. Local villagers and other community stakeholders here are engaged in carbon stocks measurement, an engagement that has provided an understanding of how local people think of and use their forest. It has also built community capacity in forest survey techniques for future carbon monitoring, essential for participation in payment for ecosystems services (PES) schemes.

Citing the practical and financial difficulties of collecting GHG and other scientific measurements on small-scale farms, Mbow said it should be clear to farmers why the data are important, and to explain this, we need to go beyond the mitigation benefits.

“What does a mega-ton of carbon mean to a smallholder farmer in Africa? In fact, what is the local-language word for greenhouse gas? Should a farmer care about this?” Mbow posed.

Luckily, it is not important for farmers to understand the science of climate change to mitigate and adapt to it.

Farmers, as they have done for millennia, care about good and resilient farms that allow them to meet and improve their livelihoods now and in the future. The farmers that will achieve this are today adopting practices, such as agroforestry, mulching, and diversification, that increase the carbon content of their farms both above and below the ground.

Farmers intent on raising their productivity through such techniques will naturally enjoy higher and more sustainable yields from their farms, and build their resilience to future climate-change-related stresses.

These low-emission farming systems have an important spillover effect: They put less pressure on forest resources, and are part of the global response to climate change.

A perfect marriage of mitigation and adaptation.


The event titled Issues in Considering GHG (greenhouse gas) Measurements in Agriculture was part of ALL Day 5, organized on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 18) in Doha, Qatar.


See related technical paper:

 Methods for the quantification of emissions at the landscape level for developing countries in smallholder contexts


See US-EPA brief on greenhouse gas emissions (external link)

More stories from Climate Change Conference in Doha:

The drivers and levers of deforestation

Shame and pride can be drivers of reforestation

Brazil’s pride in the Amazon keeps deforestation at bay

Is that hot shower deforestation-free?

Related stories:

Five ways agroforestry helps farmers adapt to climate change