Why Agriculture Needs to Catch Up on Climate Change Action

Farmers know weather. They know that the rainfall and temperature patterns that they depend on for productive yields are increasingly volatile.

Agriculture is one of the first sectors that will be seriously affected by climate change. We're already seeing the impacts: the record-breaking drought and heat wave in Texas this year, for example, greatly depressed peanut yields, tripled prices for processors and led to a consumer price increase of 30-40 percent on peanut butter, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Climate change will likely impact average temperatures, and the frequency of heat waves and extreme weather events, including storms, floods and droughts, is expected to increase, all with repercussions that will be felt by the agriculture sector.

Against this backdrop of changing environmental conditions, major food and beverage companies such as H.J. Heinz and ConAgra Foods are examining the sustainability of their agricultural supply chains. Extreme weather conditions can interrupt supplies of raw material inputs, thereby endangering access to the ingredients, fibers and even biofuels upon which major global supply chains depend. 

In a move to adapt to climate change and to mitigate associated risk, leading companies are beginning to address these concerns by making publicly stated goals to reduce the agricultural emissions in their supply chain. H.J. Heinz has a target to reduce the carbon footprint of California tomato crops by 15 percent by 2014, while ConAgra Foods aims to reduce their emissions per pound of product by 20 percent by 2015. 

Responsible for approximately 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture has a considerable impact on climate change. Roughly 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are produced by agricultural activities; this is comparable to the total national emissions of France, or one third of U.S. passenger vehicles. For many crops, up to 80 percent or more of these emissions occur before products leave the farm gate.

It is for these reasons that the Carbon Disclosure Project conducted a 2011 pilot with the intention of engaging U.S. suppliers of tomatoes and potatoes, in order to gauge their capacity to report on greenhouse gas emissions and to identify areas of successful emissions management. The results, which are now available in a new report (PDF) written for CDP by Common Fields, illustrate that some growers have practiced sustainable farming practices for more than a decade, while others demonstrated a willingness with the proviso of the right incentives. At the other end of the spectrum lies doubt. There are growers who question both the causes and urgency of climate change. 

More than 3,700 companies this year disclosed information on their climate change strategies, emissions and emissions reductions activities through CDP. In stark contrast, the majority of suppliers that took part in the new agriculture supply chain pilot are unable to quantify their emissions footprint, their emissions reductions as a result of sustainable agriculture or emissions reductions initiatives.

This positions the U.S. agriculture sector as lagging in terms of commitment, understanding and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions and reductions strategies. Interviews with growers revealed that much more needs to be done in order to fulfill the risk mitigation and emissions reduction ambitions of their corporate customers. Additionally, not all responsibility lies at farm level; successful corporate strategies include setting clear supplier requirements, providing user-friendly software and training, and offering incentives to share the burden and strengthen the business case for emissions reductions.

Most processors and retailers acknowledge that the sustainable performance of growers is likely to become a strong factor in buying decisions. Greater education and investment from processors, retailers, industry groups, trade associations and throughout the value chain is needed to fully engage the growers, who are the furthest removed from any consumer or investor signal to respond to climate change, and yet are most susceptible and vulnerable to its effects.

As part of the solution, reporting of the greenhouse gas emissions in a company's value chain will become standard practice within three to five years. The agricultural sector must embrace this as an opportunity to ensure its profitability and sustainability. Humanity relies on food and fiber to fulfill our basic needs; the role of the farmer in protecting these resources is critical.

Farm image via Shutterstock.