After years of neglect, agriculture finally found a place in the climate talks in 2017. Its absence during the lifespan of the United Nations negotiations on climate change was always conspicuous.

The world’s poor, the majority of whom farm for their livelihoods, are set to suffer the most from the heatwaves, droughts and floods that wipe out harvests. The likelihood and severity of most extreme weather events analysed by scientists has been linked to climate change.

Agriculture and food systems are also responsible for up to one third of total greenhouse gas emissions. Yet we have much potential to farm smarter and reduce emissions while still providing nutritious food for all.

The breakthrough came in the form of a new work plan being set up to discuss issues relating to agriculture, over a two-year period. As the negotiations continued in Poland in December, progress was slow with ways forward still being discussed.

But what we did see was increased momentum among all involved in agriculture, to take action into their own hands. If we are serious about climate change, and other global challenges like undernutrition, water pollution and biodiversity loss, we need to transform our entire food system – from production to consumption – over the next decade. So where do we go from here to turn the ideas for ways forward into action?

Financing for climate-smart agriculture needs unlocking

Climate-smart agriculture, which aims to boost farm productivity, adapt to climate change, and reduce emissions, is gaining momentum around the globe. Practices like conservation agriculture, that rely on minimal soil disturbance to keep carbon safely stored, and the breeding of high-yielding, drought-tolerant crops that require less land and water to grow, are becoming more popular and readily available to farmers.

Yet the financing required to scale up climate-smart agriculture approaches, is lacking. It is estimated that there is a $200 billion financing gap for smallholders globally. In an effort to unlock the necessary finance for vulnerable farmers, a new report launched in Poland analysed priorities in climate-smart agriculture in 33 countries, a process involving 1,300 experts.

The results reveal insights into which are the most “climate-smart”. Results vary for the three focus regions. In Africa, for example, combining trees and livestock (“silvopasture”) was ranked as the most climate-smart option, while in Asia the use of biogas came top. In Latin America, intercropping ranked first.

Image: World Bank Group

Action on soils needs stepping up

Our soils hold major potential to trap carbon from the atmosphere. A recent study has shown that improved management of farmland could offset carbon emissions equivalent to the total emissions out of the US every year. It would also boost soil health: in studies across Africa, Asia and Latin America, increasing soil carbon by 0.4% each year enhanced crop yields by 1.3%.

Scientists have launched an eight-step action plan for “recarbonizing” our soils, to help meet the Paris pledges. Protecting peatlands is one priority, as they currently keep around 40% of all soil carbon in the ground – yet are under threat from draining, burning and conversion to farmland. Developing robust methods of reporting on soil carbon capture is another important step – we need technologies that can make soil testing cheaper, faster and more accurate.

The impacts of climate change on nutrition need attention

Climate change is not only affecting the quantity of food we can grow, but also the quality. Studies have shown that rising carbon dioxide levels actually have a beneficial effect on the growth of some of the food we eat, like wheat, rice and potatoes. The downside of this is that we are likely to produce more carbohydrates at the expense of other nutrients that we need for healthy diets.

A study recently published in Nature supports this theory. It shows that we will, in fact, be able to provide more calories than needed to feed a growing population, even under climate change conditions. However, nearly every region of the world is also likely to face serious shortfalls in producing enough food with the key micronutrients necessary for maintaining a healthy diet.

To ensure future populations are nutritionally secure, we need to ramp up production of nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses and nuts, as well as working to develop new varieties of crops with enhanced micronutrient content.

We have a short timeframe to transform our global food system. While negotiations within the United Nations remain slow, action on the ground is gathering pace. Everyone, from farmers in the fields, to consumers making food choices, can play a role in building a better food system that will be fit for purpose in the future.