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Feeding the world and fighting climate change are always top of mind for farmers

November 18, 2023

World’s leaders to focus on food systems and agriculture at upcoming COP28 in Dubai

The role of food systems and agriculture in climate action is taking center stage at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP28, which kicks off Nov. 30 in Dubai.

COP convenes country leaders each year to discuss and coordinate global efforts to address climate change. Since COP21 in 2015, the conference has focused heavily on how to implement the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit the rise in the Earth’s temperature and prevent the potentially disastrous effects of global warming.

This year, the organizers of COP28 have added a food-systems focus to the agenda, urging global governments to sign a declaration of intent to integrate food systems and agriculture into their national climate agendas. An initiative encouraging the widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture has also been launched.

Farmers, ranchers and producers have been focused for many years on agriculture’s role in feeding the world and meeting its climate change goals. They recognize the vital importance of creating healthy, sustainable food systems, a goal that is disrupted by the climate crisis.

Indeed, agriculture stands at the forefront of solutions to nourish the world and nurture the planet.

Three things to know

  • COP28, set for Nov. 30–Dec. 12 in Dubai, will explore a Food Systems and Agriculture agenda.

  • It will call on global leaders to sign a declaration that aligns national food systems and agriculture strategies with climate efforts.

  • Agriculture is vital to feeding the world and meeting its climate change goals. It has the capability to reduce its own emissions and capture and sequester emissions released by other industries

“There is no other industry that plays such a fundamental role in terms of not only producing food, but also preserving our planet,” said Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech. “If we produce our food in the right way, we can deliver on some of those big objectives of having the right nutrition, of creating new economic opportunities, and protecting and renewing our natural resources.”

Climate change cannot be solved without agriculture, and agriculture cannot thrive without tackling climate change. We must meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.

The world needs the nourishment of protein-rich meat, milk, eggs and seafood and crops that are grown in healthy soil. At the same time, we must work to minimize any harmful effects of agricultural practices on the environment. This can be accomplished by improving the health of animals and the soil, maximizing the quality of animal feed, increasing the efficiency of the farm and reinvesting in innovation.

The power of carbon sequestration

While agriculture currently contributes about a quarter of global GHG emissions, it possesses the unique capability to reduce its own emissions and capture and sequester emissions released by other industries. This makes agriculture a powerful tool in the fight against climate change.

A study published in PLOS Climate earlier this year suggested that agriculture could be carbon-negative by 2050. Advancements in agricultural technology and management have the potential to not only slow down the growth of greenhouse gas emissions from the global food system but actually achieve net negative emissions, the study’s authors said.

“Our study recognizes the food system as one of the most powerful weapons in the battle against global climate change,” said co-lead author Professor Benjamin Houlton, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. “We need to move beyond silver-bullet thinking and rapidly test, verify and scale local solutions by leveraging market-based incentives.”

Focusing on soil health, leading-edge nutrition and pasture management practices, and the use of climate-smart technologies will allow the agriculture industry to capture more carbon each year.

Alltech has been studying the agriculture industry’s ability to sequester carbon through a research alliance based at the 10,000-acre Buck Island Ranch in Lake Placid, Florida. The alliance brings together Alltech’s scientists with ecologists and agriculture experts to understand the impact cattle production has on an ecosystem.

Researchers at Buck Island have learned that grazing ruminant animals on land actually benefits the environment and improves carbon cycling, which refers to the movement of carbon through various reservoirs on Earth — the atmosphere, soil and water, for example. The team is measuring the carbon emissions of beef production and evaluating the effects of pasture management, grazing strategies, mineral supplementation and other nutritional strategies.

The results have confirmed that carbon-neutral — and even net-positive — beef production is possible at Buck Island, and that same potential likely extends to other environments around the world.

“What Buck Island shows us is that with animals on the land, we capture more carbon than without them,” said Dr. Lyons. “That is profoundly powerful.”

Agricultural technologies and practices required to increase carbon capture could be “regionally down-scaled according to local culture, economics, technology readiness and agricultural management capacities,” the PLOS Climate study concluded. “This makes agriculture a unique economic sector and reiterates that it should be a key focus when discussing climate targets.”

The potential to capture carbon in the soil presents a significant opportunity for the agri-food community to embrace our critical role in combatting climate change while simultaneously improving soil health, boosting crop yields and promoting biodiversity.

“The biggest carbon sink that we can have is our land,” Dr. Lyons said. “Agriculture is the answer.”