Agriculture is central to the climate crisis. While essential to human survival, it contributes to greenhouse emissions that pose a dire threat to humanity’s future.
Climate change has reduced global agriculture productivity by 21% since 1961, according to a recent study by Nature and Climate Change. At the same time, food systems represent a third of total greenhouse gas emissions and are a major contributor to biodiversity loss. According to the Food and Land Use Coalition, we need an estimated $350 billion annually to make agriculture practices greener and more resilient.
Martin Lemoine, Head of ADB’s Private Sector Agribusiness Unit, outlines how agribusiness can help to reduce the impact of climate change if proactive, innovative practices are embraced.
How can agriculture adapt to the ongoing climate change?
Management of resources has always been key to agriculture production. The issue now is there are fewer and fewer resources available. For instance, Asia’s freshwater supply—80% of which is already allocated for agriculture—will be further stressed by increasing demands from farms to mitigate heat stress in plants and livestock.
Simple interventions can include drip irrigation and greenhouses, which can manage limited water resources and reduce vulnerability to climate change. Simple approaches to light filtration can manage temperature increases. Shade nets can improve conditions for livestock. Shade trees can be grown with coffee and cocoa trees to keep temperatures low and stable, while decreasing erosion and improving soil health by fixing nitrogen and providing organic matter from leaf litter.
Activities that improve soil, plant, and animal health can improve resilience to climate change. Regenerative agriculture practices such as no-till cultivation, not burning stubbles, and planting cover crops, can ensure that plants and soil are in the best condition to tolerate drought and erratic rainfall. Certification programs, such as the Rainforest Alliance, which codify and compensate farmers for their contributions, can also play an important role in climate adaptation. Training can embed these approaches in production methods.
New technologies can also support adaptation to climate change. Many promising biotechnology companies have invested in improving soil health through enzymes produced by microbes. Increased uptake of advanced genetics, such as climate-resilient hybrid plant varieties and livestock breeds, can also improve readiness for climate shocks.
What practices have shown promise in mitigating the impact of agriculture?
Two gases—methane produced by ruminant animals and paddy rice cultivation, and nitrous oxide from soils, fertilizers, and manure from grazing animals—are the main direct agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Both gases have significantly higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide.
New technologies in animal feed supplements have been shown to reduce enteric methane emissions by ruminants. Alternate wetting and drying irrigation practices for rice cultivation can conserve water while reducing methane emissions through the introduction of aerobic soil conditions.
More efficient specialty fertilizers, which can be applied with precision at lower rates, as well as alternatives to synthetic fertilizers, should be supported to reduce fertilizer use. Biochar is a useful soil additive, improving soil moisture-holding capacity in its raw form and serving as a slow-release fertilizer if charged with nutrients. Biochar can be created easily and economically in farms by using a kiln and pruned wood. Aside from limiting the use of synthetic fertilizers, biochar is an incredibly high-value carbon capture technology and results in the capture of approximately 50% of the carbon in wood for thousands of years.
Another effective mitigation practice is agroforestry, where growing tree and herbaceous plants alongside crops and livestock provides benefits to agriculture and the environment. Agroforestry is said to capture 7 times more carbon than monoculture plantation forestry. It also protects soil nutrients, prevents erosion and water evaporation, and provides shade, food, and diversified income streams to farmers.
What are the other challenges faced by the agriculture value chain in Asia and the Pacific?
The challenge is clear: to safeguard Asia’s food system, we need to safeguard those who grow our food.
Some 420 million of the world’s 570 million farmers are in Asia, with an average landholding of half a hectare. Smallholder farmers are crucial to food security as they produce 80% of the food consumed in the region. Despite their important role, they are acutely vulnerable to climate and economic uncertainties. The global pandemic and the resulting disruption to the agriculture value chain have exacerbated these threats.
It is essential to safeguard the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by supporting value chains. Smallholder farmers often lack access to quality inputs and technical knowledge. In addition, they are often excluded from the formal financial system, which limits their ability to make upfront investments to reduce their vulnerability to climate change. ADB partners with regional agribusiness companies that can provide advance payments to contract farmers for inputs that greatly improve soil and plant health. In addition, ADB’s partnerships with agribusiness companies frequently include direct technical assistance to farmers. For example, an ADB technical assistance provided training in climate-smart agriculture practices, including water harvesting and soil management to 20,000 smallholder coffee farmers in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and Viet Nam. As of 2021, we mobilized financing to train and provide technical assistance to over 40,000 farmers across the region with ongoing projects to cover another 106,000 farmers.
How can eating differently make a difference?
Dietary practices have a big impact on health outcomes. In India, 31% of children are nutritionally stunted and 53% of women are anemic due to the lack of protein and iron intake. Companies like Suguna have made great strides in making poultry an affordable source of high-quality protein that can, alongside other sources of affordable proteins and nutrients, reduce malnutrition.
Other changes can come from a shift in what we choose to eat. Compared with meat, fish has a very low carbon footprint, which is why ADB is actively pursuing sustainable aquaculture investments. Similarly, plant-based protein products, a viable replacement for higher carbon footprint animal proteins, are popular with consumers who want to eat more climate-friendly food.
Large investments are needed to develop plant-based protein value chains in Asia, including in farming and primary processing. To reduce the dependence of the global food system on animal proteins, farming peas or beans must become as attractive to smallholder farmers in Asia as the rearing of livestock.
How does buying food from the right places make an impact?
Food supply disruptions caused by COVID-19 forced many people to rethink where they buy their food. This included large market chains and groceries. Retailers started expanding their stocks of locally grown produce from smallholder farms as imports declined. Companies like Korzinka in Uzbekistan have realized the value of local farmers and taken steps to provide faster payment terms for local agricultural supply chains.
It has been estimated that food will travel an average of 1,500 miles from where it’s grown to reach consumers in the United States. The distance is likely similar for Asian consumers. Sourcing food from local farms reduces this distance, thereby cutting carbon emissions from transport. It also strengthens overall food security, improves farmer livelihoods, and increases the nutritional value of produce.
How can greater economic circularity help preserve natural capital?
Existing food systems cause pollution and loss of biodiversity. It is important to support circular economy interventions to address these challenges. For instance, recycling plastics can protect the biodiversity of waterways and the ocean by reducing plastic pollution.
In livestock, biogas digesters not only capture methane but also generate energy. Biogas digesters significantly lower the environmental impact of livestock waste, which is no longer released or transported. Working models can be found in countries like the People’s Republic of China which are scalable and applicable to other economies in the region.
Wastes can also be upcycled into animal feed ingredients. For instance, dairy companies may be able to process manufacturing waste into high-protein feed ingredients, and plants such as algae and duckweed can be used to remove excess nutrients in wastewater while producing biomass for animal feed.
ADB is promoting the use of carbon credits and payments for ecosystem services by governments and donors. ADB’s natural capital lab will help governments to quantify the value of ecosystem services and design incentive mechanisms for farmers and agribusinesses to adopt more sustainable practices.
The objective is to help restore and preserve the region’s natural capital while remaining economically viable.
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