Global food production must rise to meet global food needs, but predicted increases in extreme weather events — combined with stresses such as poverty, conflict and weak governance — threaten food security. At the same time, agricultural practices such as inappropriate fertiliser use and land clearing release greenhouse gases and exacerbate climate change.
Agricultural practices that can reduce emissions and improve yields under extreme weather conditions exist — but progress on national and global policies to support them has been sluggish, say the authors, led by John Beddington.
After failure to reach agreement on the role of agriculture at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15), a renewed drive during COP17 resulted in commitments that do not include a formal workplan. Obstacles to progress emerged from countries' differing views, separate discussions on mitigation and adaptation, and technical challenges.
Looking ahead, the brief suggests six areas where science can contribute to policy progress along the lines of priorities identified by the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change.
First, it calls for common definitions on widely used terms such as "climate-smart agriculture" and "sustainable intensification", to contribute to a common understanding of how they help achieve adaptation and mitigation goals.
And as agriculture is considered a driver of deforestation, scientists must be clearer when describing strategies involving both agriculture and forestry.
Global monitoring and new information systems will be needed to provide location-specific estimates of the risks and benefits of proposed policies, say the authors. This will help countries manage trade-offs and evaluate who benefits from agricultural practices designed to promote adaptation or mitigation.
Scientists will also need to document how farmers, industry, consumers and governments can scale up the benefits they receive from sustainable farming practices — and this will need integrated research and a better understanding of what works in different regions.
Finally, science can help develop processes that allow climate funds to be invested into agricultural adaptation and mitigation, steering investments towards "climate-smart" agriculture at a national level.
Expanding the use of sustainable agricultural practices promises to reduce climate change risks to food production and decrease greenhouse gas emissions, the authors say. A framework on agriculture that includes both adaptation and mitigation needs to be agreed at this year's COP18 in Qatar, and scientists can make a significant contribution to these policy initiatives.
This policy brief was written by John Beddington, from the UK Government Office of Science, and colleagues.