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Copenhagen: peasant farmers can save the planet

Ed Hamer

15th December, 2009

Carbon reduction potential of ecological farming methods is highlighted at Copenhagen, as protests against industrial agriculture gather strength

Small-scale peasant farmers from the global South are not just among the first to suffer the impacts of climate change: they also offer the most realistic solution to the climate crisis.

This was the message delivered to delegates and minister at the COP15 negotiations by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina today.

Speaking at the UNFCCC conference center, Henry Saragih, La Via Campesina’s international coordinator, urged heads of state to recognise the role peasant agriculture can play in mitigating climate change while at the same time addressing food security.

‘More than 150 peasant farmers have come to Copenhagen to claim that a radical change in the food system can reduce current global emissions from between 50-75 per-cent,' he said. 'We are not begging for carbon credits or other trade based solutions; we advocate a diverse food system that supports local markets and ultimately promotes food sovereignty.’

According to the La Via Campesina: ‘Global warming has been taking place for decades but it has been only recently, once transnational corporations have been able to set up huge money-making schemes, that we hear about possible solutions designed and controlled by big companies and backed up by governments.'

Ecological approach needed

Current agricultural production is estimated to contribute 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than double that of its nearest rival, transport, at 13.5 per cent. Via Campesina argues however that simply rebuilding soil fertility to pre-industrial levels has the potential to sequester up to 330bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.

‘This could realistically be achieved through the ecological approach to agriculture which is already used by millions of peasant farmers across the world,’ said Henry Saragih, ‘however, the positive contribution of sustainable farming to the climate, the environment and employment has so far been overlooked by the Climate talks.’

Via Campesina’s claims are supported by a recent report by the agricultural NGO GRAIN which calculates that sustainable farming techniques could progressively increase soil organic matter by 60 tonnes/hectare over the next 50 years. Soil organic matter has been recognised by, among others, the IPCC as a significant sink for sequestering atmospheric carbon.

Responding to the role of agriculture in the talks, Jonathan Scurlock, the chief climate change advisor to the NFU said:
'A climate deal without agriculture is "No Deal”. Agriculture is where poverty reduction, food security and climate change intersect and we all want it included in the Copenhagen agreement. Much of the fine detail can await further development by the UN's subsidiary bodies.’

Petrol station shut down

Meanwhile, half a mile away from the conference centre, more than 600 farmers, activists, landless peasants and young people from around the world converged for a demonstration calling for politicians to ‘change the food system, not the climate!’.

'Green-washed' rubbish was dumped outside the headquarters of Danish supermarket giant Danisco to highlight the superficial greening of large food retailers. An action outside the Danish Meat Council drew attention to Denmark’s dependence upon imported soya and cereals to feed its 800,000 intensively farmed pigs.

The demonstration culminated in shutting down one of Copenhagen’s central petrol stations. The protest was aimed at EU legislation introduced in 2007 requiring pump petrol and diesel to contain at least 10 per-cent biofuels by 2020. ‘Agrofuels have been championed by agribusiness as a solution to climate change, however this is not the case,’ said Marie Smekens, representing the European youth movement, Reclaim the Fields.

‘By supporting large scale cereal farming, agrofuels directly encourage mechanisation and dependence on fossil fuel based fertilisers and pesticides - which are responsible for agriculture’s massive carbon footprint. Demand for agrofuels is already competing for land that would otherwise be used for food production, in turn this results in a direct increase in food imports and carbon emissions.’

Despite the G77 group of developing nations staging a temporary walk-out on Monday in protest at the lack of concessions being made by G20 countries, negotiations have resumed today. While many still expect the conference to deliver a 'statement of intent' by Friday, the contributions of both small-scale and industrial agriculture in any agreement are likely to remain contentious.

Ed Hamer is a freelance journalist specialising in agriculture and globalisation issues. He is reporting from Copenhagen

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