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Handful of grains. (Photo: Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT)
Image: CC /Anne Wangalachi/ CIMMYT

Waste less, cut greenhouse gas

Interview: Anke Rasper / dc
October 31, 2012

Agriculture and food production contribute close to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, say the CGIAR Climate Change Research Program. This is only set to increase, they say, as the global population grows.


DW: Agriculture and food production account for almost 30 percent of global greenhouse emissions. When it comes to food production and distribution, where do you think can greenhouse gases be cut?

Sonja Vermeulen: Well, I think some of our main opportunities lie not so much in agriculture but in how we handle food after it's been harvested. For example, we lose a lot of food when we store it and when we transport it and even in people's homes, particularly in wealthier countries. So perhaps the biggest opportunities lie in those areas, really trying to have less of what we call post-harvest losses and particularly in richer countries, putting an incentive to help restaurants and people themselves to throw away less food at home.

Less waste would also mean fewer emissions.

Yes. Less waste definitely means fewer emissions. We estimate at the moment that we waste about a third of the food that we produce. That's a big area where we can make a difference. Another thing that we really need to try to do is in agriculture itself, to try to reduce the amount of deforestation associated with agriculture. So in taking agriculture forward, we need to think more about growing more food on the amount of land we're using now rather than cutting down more forest.

Now for African farmers that will in many cases mean actually increasing the amount of fertilizer and other inputs they put onto their land. You may have heard that putting fertilizer onto farms increases emissions.

That is true, but in the bigger picture it's a better option to increase your input and increase your yield but avoid deforesting larger areas. So that would be the message for most small-holder farmers in Africa.

How does agriculture have to change then? According to your findings, do they have to grow different varieties of crops to adapt to climate change, or do they have to change their crops? Should for instance potato farmers then switch to bananas instead?

Well, this very much depends on different parts of the world and also the rate that climate change is happening at. So, at the moment we really are producing greenhouse gas emissions very quickly and faster than we had anticipated. So this does mean that it looks like for many farmers around the world, they will be needing to change in the long term, around 2050 or so, to completely different crops. So in Africa we might be thinking about changing away from maize to smaller grain crops, sorghums and millets which were traditionally grown in the past. We may also be seeing farmers wanting to change out of crops altogether and more into livestock systems.

Sonja Vermeulen (Photo:IISD Reporting Services)
Vermeulen says we need to change our eating habitsImage: FIISD Reporting Services

Some crops that we see are surprisingly resistant to climate change. We see fava in that group, cowpeas as well. But even with those we're not sure of the whole picture. We are not sure in particular how diseases affect these crops and how those diseases will change with climate change.

Doesn't that also mean that diets have to change?

Yes, I expect that will be the case. It is something that we are going to need to think of in the longer term both in terms of what's better adapted to different places. And secondly diversification has always been a good strategy of dealing with unpredictability and rapid change, so a diversified food basket would be a good idea in most countries. And a third point to think about is in terms of mitigating the effects of food production on climate change. For example a diet that has less animal products in it and a greater degree of, for example, lentils, is going to produce less greenhouse gas emissions. So that might also be a motivation to changing diets over the next 30 to 40 years

Meat in many countries means that you are rich and it's kind of a lifestyle thing. Is such a diet so easy to change?

It's not easy to change, but do remember that diets have changed a great deal over the past. So for instance maize was only introduced in most African countries in the early 20th century, even though people see it now as something that has been there forever. So these things do change.

On the other hand I'd also like to make it clear that we don't want to encourage people who are currently undernourished to be trying to cut back on their diets. Obviously what we need to be doing as a society at the moment is really trying to encourage greater consumption of animal products amongst poorer people, particularly in Africa. Eighty percent of kids in Africa suffer from iron deficiency and meat is one of the best ways to overcome that. It's in other places where we are really over consuming those kinds of products at the moment. Europe interestingly has an even higher meat consumption than North America, so Europe I think, is a particular place where all of us should be thinking a bit more carefully about our meat and dairy consumption.

Farmer works on his maize farm in Mozambique. (Foto:Donna Bryson/AP/dapd)
Some crops have become increasingly resistant to the effects of climate changeImage: dapd

So we are talking about a very complex global change in both diets and also crops. Now, adaptation efforts have already started in many countries. And do you think small holder farmers are already getting enough support?

No, I think smallholder farmers are really under supported. In terms of the kind of changes that they need to make – they need a lot of help. They are finding that their weather patterns are getting more and more unpredictable every year. So you can see straight away that they need help with things like better weather forecasting services, getting a better idea of what might happen this season in terms of their weather. Also in terms of all the kinds of risk buffering measures that people in other parts of the world take for granted. Such as access to capital to buy anything that they might need for the season, and insurance in particular.

Now the next conference on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] is about to take place in Doha. What role do you hope food security and adapting food systems will play there?

The Committee on Food Security, which is another UN community, met recently, in October, and they discussed climate change for the first time in their history. And they have put forward some strong recommendations to the UNFCCC for their meeting in Doha. So there's a precedent now to really take food security seriously. And those of us in the agriculture community are hoping that there will be something called a work program on agriculture that will think about how adaptation and mitigation in agriculture can go hand in hand, and particularly to assure food security to poor farmers and poor consumers.

Traditionally we have treated adaptation and mitigation as separate things, but in fact the very first statement of the framework convention on climate change says that the reason we need to mitigate greenhouse gases is in order to assure food security. So it's almost the basis of our understanding of why it matters.

Dr Sonja Vermeulen is the head of research at the CGIAR program on climate change agriculture and food security. CGIAR research is dedicated to reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition, and ensuring more sustainable management of natural resources.

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