Climate Change and Agriculture

Climate Change and Agriculture

Not many people believe that agriculture is one of the most important sectors when it comes to climate change and the environment in general. This sector is constantly marginalized, neglected, used for petty political and major financial interests, there are still no significant foreign investments. Local small and large tycoons led by misconceptions from childhood, are making their childhood dreams (and the dreams of Vasa Ladachki) for managing large agricultural entities a reality. Of course, until the opportunity arises to earn again by reselling them to someone.

In addition to large businesses, there are another 200,000 small businesses run by people we want to keep in rural areas through various subsidy systems, production support, rural development and a range of measures. Judging by the sale of apartments in Skopje and the number of young people in rural areas, most likely these fail more often than we hope. And we are slowly forgetting the importance of this sector. But hey, I will not speak of basic food needs (plus a little bit of honey, cheese, salad, something sweet and a sip of good-quality spirit) which are satisfied with the very activities in the sector. I will speak of the environment.

I have said it, written about it many times before and will repeat it again: farmers manage 50% of the Macedonian land, use 60 to 80% of the fresh water in the country, keep chicken coops, herds and farms with a huge number of animals, use thousands of tons of potent and less potent toxic substances such as pesticides, fertilizers and other agrochemicals. Moreover, according to research on the structure of agricultural households conducted by the Statistical Office in 2016, only 5.2% of the people with any education in agriculture are engaged in the individual sector, whereas the number of highly qualified staff engaged in agriculture is only 0.8%. Businesses employ only 270 highly skilled agricultural workers.

So, the care for healthy, quality and safe food and the care of the environment in most part is left to one sector - agriculture, in which profession and competences are, to put it mildly, underestimated. Anyone can engage in agricultural production, despite the fact that we hve the fruits of the work in this sector (at least three times a day) on our tables, every day. The quantity, quality, safety and availability of food are the foundations on which our survival depends. On top of that, our future depends on the quality of the environment.

Still, no one is doing anything about it: forget the farmers, they are doing what no one wants to do anyway, let’s just get them off our necks. How much and in what ways they affect our health, our safety, our well-being and our environment, is rarely dicussed by anyone. And almost no one exercises any control over it.

Unfortunately, agriculture is not a regulated profession. There is no obligation to employ agronomists as professionals, and the situation is even worse with respect to using science. Does anyone care about what we eat, how it is produced, what is destroyed and degraded along the way? Well, not really. Let someone else think about it. It's not a virus or, God forbid, a pimple on your face, to see to it right away.

However, the enthusiasm is not lost. Especially not with respect to climate change and agriculture. In fact, at the very beginning I said that this was the most important sector in terms of climate change. Above all, due to the negative effects of the changing climate on agricultural production that for the most part happens outside, in the open and fully exposed to all the effects of global warming. Additionally, the agricultural sector is a significant agent of climate change due to greenhouse gases emissions. After all, agriculture is the largest source of methane, which has 25 times greater potential to heat the planet compared to carbon dioxide and to diathesis monoxide, which 298 times more potent to heat the planet than carbon dioxide.

In the past period, Republic of North Macedonia has submitted three National Commnications to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning, financially supported by GEF and implemented by UNDP). All these communications adress the agricultural sector as well.

The First National Communication defined the research basis for examining vulnerability and adaptation of the agricultural sector. The impact of climate change on crop production was considered based on the FAO model of agricultural response to water scarcity. Vulnerable regions were defined and ranked according to their degree of vulnerability, pursusant to a series of biophysical indicators. Of the adaptation measures, irrigation of agricultural crops proved to be the most favorable, but that was primarily due to the selected model.

The Second National Communiction applied the same model, but made progress towards spatial analysis and modeling in a GIS environment. Thus, vulnerable regions were pinpointed in space and a number of indicators were applied, but there was no significant progress in modeling the effects of adaptation measures, because the applied model was based on the Liebig’s law of the minimum and modeled only the water as a factor that limits the volume of agricultural production in our country. It should be noted that the application of more sophisticated models was limited by non-transparency of data needed for modeling, as is at present as well.

Therefore, for the preparation of the sector report on agriculture for the needs of the Third National Communication cooperation was established with the Joint Research Center of the European Union, which made available their resources, i.e. daily data on all necessary meteorological elements and models applied in their research. In addition, serious effort has been made to build capacity through training in the use of these tools. This time the most advanced tools were applied. The results obtained are quite similar to the results of the first two national communications - again irrigation has the largest effect of most researched adaptation measures. These activities have greatly contributed to the creation of a knowledge base in the country, contributed to emergence of other climate change related projects in the agricultural sector and raised the awareness that the sector needs to strengthen its adaptive capacity. Unfortunately, capacities that that have been built were slowly being lost due to the situation in the country and the insufficient capacity to retain quality young servants in the institutions.

As a result of these activities and indications of the high vulnerability of the agricultural sector to climate change, a number of other studies have been conducted, such as the World Bank-supported research on vulnerability and adaptation of the agricultural sector to climate change  and Green Growth, the USAID’s Climate Change Adaptation Project, which tested and promoted a range of adaptive practices in agriculture. In addition, FAO has supported increased access to agro-meteorological data and establishment of the website . In addition, a series of project activities were implemented by several non-governmental organizations that contributed to spreading the information about climate change.

With respect to greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector and mitigation measures, there is much less talk than about the vulnerability and adaptation of the sector, where indeed a lot of work is being done. The greenhouse gas inventory in the agriculture sector is part of all three National Communications and two Biennal Update Reports already prepared, with emissions calculated and mitigation measures proposed. These reports are prepred pursuant to methods proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and are an important source of information on the impact of agriculture on climate change.

While on this topic, it should be noted that agriculture is probably the only sector that can very easily reduce GHG emissions and even grow into a very important GHG sink. Green cells capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and distribute it to in above-ground and underground biomass. What was once in the air is now in the biomass. Above-ground biomass is used in part, but still a significant portion of it can be used as a renewable energy source. Underground biomass remains in the soil and under the influence of a series of processes is transformed and increases the content of organic matter in the soil, thus positively affecting the fertility and health of soils. Exactly this capability of the soil to retain carbon dioxide as an organic matter in the long-run is one of the greatest potentials for turning the agricultural sector into a GHG sink.

Unfortunately, we use this potential next to none, and instead of increasing, we note a process of reducing the content of organic matter in the soil.

If you thought this was all, you are way off track. Activities for the preparation of the Third Biennial Update Report on Climate Change are currently finishing and it will soon be available to the public. At the same time, starting are activities for the preparation of the sectoral report on vulnerability and adaptation of the agricultural sector to climate change to be used for the development of the Fourth National Communication on Climate Change. This time, the approach to capacity building is completely different. Development of analyses and reports on agriculture, land use and forestry has been institutionalized for the first time and activities are implemented by a consortium consisting of the Institute of Agriculture, the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences and Food and the Faculty of Forest Sciences, Landscape Architecture and Eco-Engineering “Hans Em”, plus all the units of the University “Ss. Cyril and Methodius” from Skopje. Junior research staff has joined the expert team in each position, in order to ensure sustainability of the activities.

In addition, approach to sector analysis has changed in line with the integral approach to research. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change standards, research is conducted in the entire sectors of agriculture, forestry and other types of land use. Step by step, some of the biggest obstacles to research in this sector are being overcome - the lack of data being one - by finding alternative sources of data or generating data through remote research. Thus, data on changes in land use is being obtained by analyzing satellite images, and a database is slowy being built that should cover the entire past period. Unavailable data, which until now was the biggest stumbling block not only in the development of the aforementioned national documents, but also to scientific research in the fields of climate change and agriculture, is now collected from publicly available continental and global meteorological databases, such as the databases of the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC) and the European Center for Medium-Range Forecasts (ECMWF).

With the support of the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning and the UNDP Office in Skopje, analyses of the extreme weather events were developed by eminent foreign experts, to be further used in the analysis of the limiting factors in agricultural production. I hope that all this will finally result in the knowledge we need to understand the true extent of the impact of climate change. I have repeatedly pointed out that analyses based on monthly averages do not provide enough information. Frost damage occurs in just a few hours at low temperatures, hail damage occurs in just a few minutes, torrential floods take only a few hours to cause damage, heat waves and droughts decrease yields in one to two weeks of extremely high temperatures without precipitation. We were not able to grasp all this so far, I hope that this time we will.

Furthermore, we are working on intensifying the multi-disciplinary approach. Until now, the agricultural sector has been analyzed in close relation to the water sector, so the involvement of the energy sector in the analyses would represent a step forward in achieving the "Food - Water - Energy" nexus, which is one of the most important in the European Union, and would be of particular importance to us, as the interaction between these sectors is very important for the development of the economy and the protection of the environment.

In the end, let me summarize briefly: although the agricultural sector is marginalized, much has been done so far to understand the effects and interaction of this sector and climate change, and serious action is currently being taken towards institutionalization, establishing a set of indicators with permanent value, capacity building and development of the necessary databases that are important for better analysis and scientific research in this field.

However, the essential question concerns the impact of all this on the sector. If no serious steps are taken towards implementation of these analyses’ recommendations, they will once more remain just another written document.

I deeply believe that it is not too painful to convert the gift that we have been blessed with by St.s Cyril and Methodius, the precious letters with the help of which we put on paper that which we intend to say, to action. Above all, it is necessary to restore the importance of the profession in the sector, connect agricultural areas and cattle/domestic animals with the necessary expertise, establish an innovation and technology transfer center that would develop and promote new and adapt existing climate technologies, introduce mitigation and adaptation measures in the support system of agricultural production and thus enable their promotion and much wider acceptance by agricultural producers, and a handful of other similar activities.

I am convinced that knowledge, skills and innovation in problem solving are the only correct approach. If all is based on data, scientifically defined indicators and stakeholders express willingness and readiness to be actively involved in the process of increasing agricultural sector capacity to deal with climate change, I expect that results will not be lacking.

We need to seize the opportunity provided by the new Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, which, among other things, puts the emphases on climate change and young farmers. And young people are the part of the population that is the best informed and the most engaged in taking climate action. Now is the right time to establish policies that link young people with knowledge and skills in agricultural production, acquired through formal education, with agricultural land, agricultural production and financial resources necessary to start thier own agricultural business.

Believe me when I say, they do not lack ideas, they do not lack energy, they are aware of the need for quality and safe food, they know how to produce without degrading the environment, they know how to cope with the challenge of climate change in agricultural production. Perhaps it is the young professionals who can design new ideas that will convert todays disadvantages into advantages of the agricultural sector (we must not forget that increased carbon dioxide concentration is a significant potential for intensifying biomass production).

At the moment no one likes them. They don't need big agricultural companies (uncles can make it on their own, they don't need professional staff). Small farms simply don't have the capacity to employ them. We do not have much time at disposl to figure out how to open the door so that they would join the sector for which they have the necessary expertise. If we do not find their place in the sector, whom should we expect to deal with climate change?

prof. Ordan Chukaliev

Ordan Cukaliev, Professor at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences and Food, is esteemed professional with 30 years’ experience, more than 100 publications, that gave significant contribution in the area of climate change impact on agriculture, water and soil protection, irrigation and many more.



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