March 2, 2017

Guest Commentary – The Agribusiness Case for Climate Leadership

By Dr. Margaret M. Zeigler, Executive Director, Global Harvest Initiative

The relationship between agriculture and climate change presents challenges and opportunities for the private sector, both on the supply and the demand sides of the agri-food value chain.

On the supply side, climate change is a leading risk factor for producers and industries along the agricultural value chain, threatening the prospects for agricultural productivity growth, food security, and the livelihoods of millions of farmers. Given the unpredictable conditions, current business models may become irrelevant, leading to greater market uncertainty. 

On the other hand, agriculture itself has the potential to serve as a force to mitigate climate change.  Nearly one quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributed to agriculture and forestry through deforestation and land use change (the conversion of forest to croplands or grazing land for livestock), and from methane produced by livestock, along with poor soil management. By using productive, sustainable technologies and techniques, agriculture can become a climate change mitigation powerhouse. The need to address and mitigate climate change presents the private sector with a new range of exciting opportunities, while securing the future of food and agriculture.

On the demand side, the rising global middle is demanding a wider variety of foods and more livestock-based products. Yet many consumers prefer food produced with climate-friendly methods and distributed through sustainable supply chains. By voting with their shopping carts (in-person or online), consumers are sending a message to retailers, starting a cascade of market signals that reach all the way to the producer.

Producers and agricultural businesses along the value chain are seizing opportunities to collaborate with trusted partners in providing transparent, science-based, and verifiable data to support GHG reduction claims.

It starts with productivity and innovation

Focusing on improving agricultural productivity is a vital first step in reducing agriculture’s overall environmental and GHG impact. Productivity in agriculture is achieved when the gross amount of crop and livestock output increases, while the amount of inputs used (land, labor, fertilizer, feed, machinery, livestock) remains the same or decreases. In other words, productivity is a measure of efficiency; it is innovation in action. 

Farming practices and innovative precision agriculture technologies that improve productivity can also mitigate GHG emissions, primarily from improved crop production, cropland and grazing land management, livestock emissions management, restoration of degraded lands, and soil carbon sequestration. Other key strategies include improving water and rice management and crop nutrient and livestock manure management.  GHG emissions can also be reduced by substituting fossil fuels with agricultural feedstocks such as biodiesel and biofuels.

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Source: 2016 Global Agricultural Productivity Report®, Global Harvest Initiative

Farmers need crops that require less water and have a greater tolerance to heat and drought. Livestock farmers need genetically improved breeds, improved feed and forages that reduce livestock emissions, and practices that manage manure, capture methane for energy use, and reduce waste. Variable rate irrigation will reduce water use and innovative agricultural mechanization and precision systems—some in development, others already available on the market—will help farmers apply fertilizers more efficiently. Innovation in weed-control systems enables reduction in soil tillage and the adoption of cover crops helps sequester more carbon in soil, retaining soil health and moisture. 

Agribusiness leads the way

Private-sector investment and innovation is providing farmers, ranchers, and forest managers with tools and practices that improve their productivity and allow them to contribute to a low-carbon agriculture system.

They are employing cutting-edge technology to improve livestock productivity while reducing methane emissions. Mechanization companies are developing platforms that enable precision conservation and no-tillage crops systems. Sustainability targets to reduce emissions and the use of energy and freshwater are being implemented by others, too. Some are even building a food-secure world while reducing wasted animal life in the livestock sector, thereby helping to reduce feed, water, and the overall numbers of animals in livestock systems.

Global agribusinesses are also contributing to a low-carbon agriculture system by changing how they operate and reducing the GHG impact of their products. GHI member companies are setting sustainability goals and carbon-neutral commitments throughout their operations and supply chains. They are also partnering with farmers, ranchers, conservation organizations, and government agencies to improve agricultural productivity and water quality and protect wildlife.    

Opportunities abound to help shift more farmers, ranchers, and producers along the value-chain to low-carbon production. Agricultural producers and the agriculture industry are already rising to the challenge, but more action is urgently needed: solutions applied today will not have a significant mitigating impact until 2040. 

For examples of successful leadership in the shift to a low-carbon agriculture system by GHI member companies and partners, see A Blueprint for Climate Action in Agriculture found in the 2016 Global Agricultural Productivity Report® (GAP Report®)


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

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Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

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The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

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