Linking climate mitigation and adaptation in food supply chains

A maize farmer near Alauca, Honduras, digs irrigation channels in advance of maize planting. Source:
In the face of climate change, the impact of mitigation actions on adaptation and vice-versa have to be taken into account. Photo. N. Palmer (CIAT)

by Ann-Kristin Koehler

Traditionally in the agriculture sector, climate mitigation and adaptation have be treated as separate activities. In the face of climate change, the impact of mitigation actions on adaptation and vice-versa have to be taken into account. Currently, adaptation occurs whenever it is needed using ad-hoc methods whereas mitigation is strategic and follows set targets like countrywide goals of reductions in carbon emissions within a certain timeframe. At the Planet Under Pressure conference on Thursday, a session looked at pressures and responses for climate mitigation and adaptation in food supply chains.

Work from the University of Manchester showed that meeting future global food demands would more than double CO2e emissions from wheat production if adaptation strategies to close the yield gap are applied (like increased use of fertilizers) without integrating mitigation strategies. But how to reconcile the big challenge of meeting future food demands in a changing climate with efforts to mitigate GHGs from agricultural production? What can food manufacturing companies, or retailers do, and what are they already doing?

Two large global companies – the grocery retailer Tesco and the food manufacturer Unilever -  presented an overview of the work they do to reduce their carbon footprints. Both companies first looked at the complete life cycle of a large number of over 1000 of their products, to assess the carbon footprint from farm to consumers, and determine where the most carbon emissions come from. For example Tesco found that for some products, the greatest emissions come from production of raw materials (e.g. milk), while for others such as orange juice, emissions come from logistics and distribution. In other case, such as light bulbs, most of the emissions come from the consumer.

Unilever found that, in total, farmers producing raw materials, and consumers, contribute the biggest part of the company’s carbon footprint with 26 and 68%, respectively, whereas emissions from manufacturing, distribution and disposal are relatively minor. Based on this, the companies found that their efforts for reducing their carbon footprint would mean working with both ends of the food supply chain – farmers and consumers.

But how to convince them to change their behaviour? Speaking the same language as the target group is very important, and so are financial incentives. Knorr, one of the products from Unilever that uses raw materials from 45 different countries, aims to source 100% of their fruit and vegetables sustainably by 2015. In this context, sustainable means that the smallholder farmers work in compliance with Unilever’s sustainable agricultural code (which is under constant development) or they work according to a third party standard like fair trade.

Campaigns to educate farmers about the carbon emissions connected to their farming practices is important. For this purpose the ‘Cool Farm Tool’, a free online tool, was developed for farmers by the University of Aberdeen in partnership with global businesses. The ‘Cool Farm Tool’ is a carbon calculator and therefore gives farmers the opportunity to find out about the carbon emissions of their current farming practices and enables them to build scenarios to quantify changes in carbon emissions with changes in their practices.

Another interesting study was presented from Henk van Rikxoort, (University of Wageningen together with CIAT) on the production of coffee. Four different coffee production systems were analysed in terms of their carbon footprint finding that planting polycultures has a large advantage against coffee monocultures in terms of CO2e per unit product. Polyculture coffee production combines adaptation and mitigation as it has the potential to increase farm carbon stocks, increase fertilizer use efficiency, and reduce wastewater generation (mitigation). At the same time it works towards adaptation as intercropping diversifies the farmers’ income and has a positive effect on nutrient cycling. Furthermore, the trees planted in between the coffee in a polyculture system provide shading buffering temperatures and help against erosion. The next critical steps will be related to implementation of the polyculture coffee system. Although polyculture seems to have a large advantage versus planting monocultures, the absolute yield in monocultures is usually higher and therefore more profitable for farmers if the coffee price is high. However, in the face of climate change coffee polyculture systems might be more viable, as they can help adapting to certain climate impacts and additionally diversify the income of the farmer as climate change can have a large impact on the market price of a product.

This is just the start of efforts to link climate change adaptation and mitigation work. More work is needed on assessing long-term effects of climate change on food systems, as well as on developing options for tackle mid century effects of climate change. In the future, some producers might not be able to grow their products anymore. This is not an easy challenge but the work that was presented here gives hope options are out there and that there are opportunities for the private sector and the research world to combine efforts and make a big difference for producers, farmers, manufacturers, consumers and the planet.

Ann-Kristin Koehler is a research assistant with the CCAFS research theme Adaptation to Progressive Climate Change, based at the University of LeedsFollow the coverage of the Planet Under Pressure conference all week on our blog as well as Twitter @cgiarclimate and Facebook. You can also see the full list of CGIAR events and stories from the conference.