How will we know if agriculture is climate-smart? With science-based metrics

Measuring the greenhouse gas emissions from rice production. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)
(view original)
May 3, 2018

by

Bruce Campbell (CCAFS) and Matthew Reddy (WBCSD)

As the food and agriculture sector rises to the challenge of producing more food with a lower climate impact, we need robust measurement and monitoring systems to assess progress toward global goals.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a coalition of 200+ companies committed to making more sustainable businesses more successful, announced ambitious goals for climate action in agriculture at COP21 in Paris. By 2030, WBCSD companies aim to make 50% more nutritious food available, strengthen the climate resilience of farming communities, and reduce agricultural and land-use change emissions from commercial agriculture by 50% (at least 3.7 Gt CO2eq/year).

Such ambitious global targets by multi-national companies are crucial to the agricultural transformation we need. But good faith targets are not enough. As the maxim goes, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Companies require time-bound, science-based, company-level, and value chain level systems for measuring and monitoring progress towards productivity, resilience and emission reduction targets.

Striving toward global goals

To help companies build capacity for measuring and monitoring progress, WBCSD and CCAFS, along with partners World Resources Institute (WRI), Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), and the University of Vermont (UVM), convened food and textile companies and industry experts to explore how to measure progress on climate-smart agriculture in corporate value chains.

In the context of global policy frameworks and previous collaboration, the workshop focused on how companies can:

Ben & Jerry's, Cabot, Levi Strauss, Mars, McDonald's, Microsoft, Monsanto, Ocean Spray, PepsiCo, Quantis, Syngenta, VF Corp, and Yara attended the workshop, along with industry groups Ceres, Continuum Textiles, Textile Exchange, The Fertilizer Institute, the We Mean Business coalition, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Finance Corporation.

Developing metrics that will work

Workshop discussions revealed a few guiding themes:

Harmonized approaches that can apply to diverse systems are needed. Approaches to measurement vary by region, jurisdiction, agricultural system, and voluntary or required tracing or certifications. While these approaches will likely remain distinct, harmonization of definitions, indicators, and methodologies would benefit… everyone. Clear criteria can help us assess what is climate-smart in a given context/crop/system; this will allow better tracking of adoption and outcomes. Likewise, aggregating data at different levels of granularity is necessary to ensure consistency across supply chains and over time. Estimates of emissions calculated using different methodologies may lead to a false perception of mitigation—or increased emissions—where none exists.

Technological innovation can inform the transformation in agriculture. A lack of traceability in supply chains is a barrier to measuring climate-smart indicators at farm level. Some companies find it difficult to track product origin, nevermind collecting the data necessary to estimate emissions or resilience. Even when products are traceable, each person associated with data—be it farmer, trader, or distributor—tends to find data collection to be a heavy burden. But utilizing technology and envisioning data in a new way, as a loop, where producers provide raw data and receive analysis and forecasts, is a more mutually beneficial system than the typical one-way information transfer. Innovations in information technology and digital agriculture can support such mutual information flows.

Everyone needs a business case. All actors in a value chain require incentives for supporting climate-smart agricultural practices and for increasing their reporting burden. Companies must work with suppliers, including smallholder farmers, to embed incentives to strive toward ambitious climate-smart agriculture targets.  

We are committed to learning as we go; agricultural transformation is a process

Public and private sector approaches to measuring and monitoring climate resilience, greenhouse gas emissions, and food and agricultural loss and waste currently are limited by multiple factors. However, collective learning and capacity building for companies—such as that which took place at the workshop—will strengthen measurement and monitoring approaches, and effectively contribute towards global goals.

CCAFS, WBCSD, and its private sector partners will continue to interact as a learning community to improve metrics and monitoring systems in support of climate-smart agriculture goals. In webinars, further in-person workshops, and facilitated online discussions, company representatives will continue to develop efficient and effective sytems that will measure and guide an agricultural transformation. 

Topics will likely include:

  • Incentives for transformation and information exchange in agricultural value chains
  • Efficient and effective data collection, management and aggregation, including establishing and adjusting baselines
  • Actionable tools and a metric framework for increasing smallholder farmer resilience in global value chains
  • Models to estimate and reduce food and agricultural loss and waste
  • Mitigation potential of soil carbon and cost effective measurement

Developing monitoring and evaluation approaches is also a current focus of international climate change negotiations conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. At the May 2018 Bonn Climate Change Conference, country representatives will join non-governmental organizations, research organizations, and the private sector to expand efforts to realize the Paris Agreement goal.


Related CCAFS events at the Bonn Climate Change Conference 2018: