Science To Support Limiting Climate Change By Modifying Agricultural And Fishery Systems

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Food production systems are not only affected by climate change, but also contribute to it. Agricultural activities release significant amounts of CO2, methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) to the atmosphere (Cole et al., 1997; Paustian et al., 2004; Smith et al., 2007). CO2 is released largely from decomposition of soil organic matter by microorganisms or burning of live and dead plant materials (Janzen, 2004; Smith, 2004); decomposition is enhanced by vegetation removal and tillage of soils. CH4 is produced when decomposition occurs in oxygen-deprived conditions, such as wetlands and flooded rice systems, and from digestion by many kinds of livestock (Matson et al., 1998; Mosier et al., 1998). N2O is generated by microbial processes in soils and manures, and the flux of N2O into the atmosphere is typically enhanced by fertilizer use, especially when applied in excess of plant needs (Robertson and Vitousek, 2009; Smith and Conen, 2004). The 2007 IPCC assessment concluded, with medium certainty, that agriculture accounts for about 10 to 12 percent of total global human-caused emissions of GHGs, including 60 percent of N2O and about 50 percent of CH4 (Smith et al., 2007). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 32 percent of CH4 emissions and 67 percent of N2O emissions in the United States are associated with agricultural activities (EPA, 2009b).

Typically, the projected future of global agriculture is based on intensification—increasing the output per unit area or time—which is typically achieved by increasing or improving inputs such as fertilizer, water, pesticides, and crop varieties, and thereby potentially reducing agricultural demands on other lands (e.g., Borlaug, 2007). Given this projected intensification, global N2O emissions are predicted to increase by about 50 percent by 2020 (relative to 1990) due to increasing use of fertilizers in agricultural systems (EPA, 2006; Mosier and Kroeze, 2000). If CH4 emissions grow in direct proportion to increases in livestock numbers, then global livestock-related CH4 production is expected to increase by 60 percent up to 2030 (Bruinsma, 2003); in the United States, the EPA (2006) forecasts that livestock-related CH4 emissions will increase by 21 percent between 2005 and 2020. Projected changes in CH4 emissions from rice production vary but are generally smaller than those associated with livestock (Bruinsma, 2003; EPA, 2006).

The active management of agricultural systems offers possibilities for limiting these fluxes and offsetting other GHG emissions. Many of these opportunities use current technologies and can be implemented immediately, permitting a reduction in emissions per unit of food (or protein) produced, and perhaps also a reduction in emissions per capita of food consumption. For example, changes in feeds and feeding practices can reduce CH4 emissions from livestock, and using biogas digesters for manure management can substantially reduce CH4 and N2O emissions while producing energy. Changes in management of fertilizers, and the development of new fertilizer application technologies that more closely match crop demand—sometimes called precision or smart farming—can also reduce N2O fluxes. It may also be possible to develop and adopt new rice cultivars that emit less CH4 or otherwise manage the soil-root microbial ecosystem that drives emissions (Wang et al., 1997). Alternatively, organic agriculture or its fusion into other crop practices may reduce emissions and other environmental problems. To date, however, there has been little research on the willingness of farmers and the agricultural sector in general to adopt practices that would reduce emissions, or on the kinds of education, incentives, and institutions that would promote their use.

Beyond limiting the trace gases emitted in agricultural practice, there are opportunities for offsetting GHG emissions more broadly by managing agricultural landscapes to absorb and store carbon in soils and vegetation (Scherr and Sthapit, 2009). For example, minimizing soil tillage yields multiple benefits by increasing soil carbon storage, improving and maintaining soil structure and moisture, and reducing the need for inorganic fertilizers, as well as reducing labor, mechanization, and energy costs. Such practices may also have beneficial effects on biodiversity and other ecosystem services provided by surrounding lands and can be made economically attractive to farmers (Robertson and Swinton, 2005; Swinton et al., 2006). Incorporating biochar (charcoal from fast-growing trees or other biomass that is burned in a low-oxygen environment) has also been proposed as a potentially effective way of taking carbon out of the atmosphere; the resulting biochar can be added to soils for storage and improvement of soil quality (Lehmann and Joseph, 2009), although there has been some debate about the longevity of the carbon storage (Lehmann and Sohi, 2008; Wardle et al., 2008). Shifting agricultural production systems to perennial instead of annual crops, or intercropping annuals with perennial plants such as trees, shrubs, and palms, could also store carbon while producing food and fiber. Biofuel systems that depend on perennial species rather than food crops could be an integral part of such a system. Research is needed to develop these options and to test their efficacy. Most important, a landscape approach would be required in order to plan for carbon storage in conjunction with food and fiber production, conservation, and other land uses and the ecosystem services they provide.

Land clearing and deforestation have been major contributors to GHG emissions over the past several centuries, although as fossil fuel use has grown, land use contributions have become proportionally less important. Still, tropical deforestation alone accounted for about 20 percent of the carbon released to the atmosphere from human activities from 2000 to 2005 (Gullison et al., 2007) and 17 percent of all long-lived GHGs in 2004 (Barker et al., 2007). Reducing deforestation and restoring vegetation in degraded areas could thus both limit climate change and provide linked ecosystem and social benefits (see Chapter 9). It is not yet clear, however, how such programs would interact with other forces operating on agriculture to affect overall land uses and emissions. Finally, as with all proposed emissions-limiting land-management approaches, it is critical that attention be paid to consequences for all GHGs, not just a single target gas (Robertson et al., 2000), and to all aspects of the climate system, including reflectivity of the land surface (Gibbard et al., 2005; Jackson et al., 2008), as well as co-benefits in conservation, agricultural production, water resources, energy, and other sectors.

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