December 9, 2009 / 11:43 AM / 10 years ago

U.N. climate talks have neglected food crisis: FAO

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - U.N. climate talks have neglected a food crisis, including measures which can both curb climate change and boost food production, the head of the U.N.’s food agency said.

A man sows Swiss chard in an urban garden in Havana August 11, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

“We would like to see greater conscience of the importance (of agriculture),” Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told Reuters in an interview this week at the Copenhagen climate talks.

“Historically the discussion centered on the industrial aspects of climate change, be it in terms of factories, transport, but less on the primary sector of agriculture.”

The December 7-18 meeting of 192 countries in the Danish capital is meant to agree the outlines of a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, for a full climate treaty to be signed next year.

Certain farm practices, especially in low-income countries, can heal degraded lands and therefore boost food yields in the longer term, the FAO says.

Practices such as cutting stocking rates and applying organic materials to the land can also sequester the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the soil equivalent to as much as 10 percent of global emissions, and so help slow warming.

Farming is also a major emitter as it helps drive deforestation. When that indirect effect is included, farming accounts for nearly a third of global greenhouse gases.

“Roughly around 31 percent of emissions come from agriculture ... hence the impact of good policies to lessen the negative impact and good policies to increase the capacity for carbon sequestration,” Diouf said.

“FOOD IS CULTURE”

Some farm measures which boost soil carbon — called conservation agriculture — such as “catch crops” which cover bare soil can also retain water and so help farmers prepare for global warming, scientists say.

So far, negotiators in Copenhagen have proposed a “work program” of further research into farm methods which cut emissions, and are expected to announce the outlines of a deal to compensate countries which slow deforestation.

They are also expected to fund steps which help developing countries prepare for climate change, and many poorer countries have included agriculture in those plans.

“I’d like to see that we have a financial mechanism to encourage countries which have forests not to do deforestation. I would like also to see conservation agriculture is given the necessary incentives,” Diouf said, when asked what he wanted from the Copenhagen talks.

The present Kyoto Protocol forces rich countries which have ratified the pact to limit their greenhouse gases but allows them entirely to omit emissions from farming.

In addition, lucrative measures under Kyoto which allow rich countries to pay for carbon cuts in developing nations do not apply to agriculture or preserving forests, except in the case where pig farms trap the potent greenhouse gas methane to earn carbon offsets, or if farmers plant trees.

Some scientists say that greenhouse gas emissions from raising cattle have been severely underestimated — and may account for as much as half of the global total — prompting many scientists to recommend that people eat less meat.

Diouf would not go so far as to suggest hard targets for consumers such as “meat-free days.”

“We have to educate people, ensure that there are better ways of producing meat. Food is an element of culture, of civilization, you don’t just change it overnight.”

Editing by James Jukwey

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