A Seat at the Table
Dec 10, 2009
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” says one of the minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Let’s hope that farmers don’t wind up drawing the same conclusion about the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
We’re about halfway through this massive two-week event, which has attracted more than 16,000 delegates. That’s enough to fill a basketball arena. Many of these conference-goers hope that the nations of the world will agree to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions in order to reverse global warming.
Their own transportation and accommodations will release more than 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to one estimate. Arguably, this big carbon footprint will worsen the very problem that they’re trying to solve.
It goes to show that even the finest motives can suffer from unintended consequences--and why attendees, whose ranks will include President Obama next week, will have to tread carefully when it comes to farmers.
The conference has officially designated December 12, as Agriculture and Rural Development Day. I hope this means that farmers will be included in the panels--rather than seen as targets with bulls-eyes drawn on their backs.
Agricultural activity accounts for about 14 percent of all greenhouse gases around the world. In some developing countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, farming is responsible for the majority of all carbon-dioxide emissions.
So agriculture will have to be an important part of any discussion on how to reduce greenhouse gases. The answer isn’t as blissfully simple as asking us to start driving "green" tractors--and I don’t mean machines built and painted green by John Deere.
Whether you believe that climate change is a human phenomenon or a natural event in the long history of our planet is not the issue. It's hard for laymen to know what to make of it all. Even the experts don’t agree. It becomes more confusing in light of the new “Climategate” controversy. Several influential researchers, mainly from the US and UK, are alleged to have twisted data in order to score political points--a behavior that is the exact opposite of what we should expect from scientists.
No matter where people come down on this issue, all should be able to agree on one point: Humans are capable of messing things up, whether it’s the climate or the debate about the climate.
Let’s not allow blind obsessions on either side of the global warming issue mess up agriculture, too. If this conference raises the cost of farming, thereby making food production more costly and less bountiful, then what will we have accomplished?
Perhaps the planet will be warmer. Perhaps it will be cooler. One thing is certain: It will be a lot hungrier. That’s because a separate branch of the UN, the Food and Agriculture Organization, says that food production will have to double between now and 2050.
To meet the FAO’s goal, farmers must become more productive. This will be enough of a challenge without also having to contend with new restrictions on energy use.
Here’s a modest proposal for the UN and the people attending its conference in Denmark: Any final agreement on climate-change policies must do nothing to imperil global food security. In other words, they should avoid policies that will make it more difficult for farmers to feed the world.
A recent report points out the hazards of a one-size-fits-all approach to climate policy. In some nations, it may make sense to encourage an intensification of agriculture because it would lead to welcome gains in productivity and lesson the pressure to turn forests into farmland.
More international trade would help, too. By improving the flow of goods and services across borders, it may become possible for regions with relatively low carbon emissions to produce food for regions with higher levels.
But the bottom line is that when it comes to the deliberations over global warming, farmers must have a seat at the table. If they don’t have one, the Copenhagen conference may try to celebrate whatever success it enjoys this week--only to discover that nobody has anything to eat.