Global Challenges
Issue no. 6 | November 2019
Endangered Earth
Global Challenges
Issue no. 6 | November 2019
Endangered Earth | Article 1

The Ground beneath Our Feet: Food, Agriculture and Climate Change

Reading time: 5 min

Some 12,000 years ago, the advent of settled agriculture set in motion changes in land use that profoundly transformed our planet. Both a cause and a casualty of climate change, agriculture is equally vital for finding ways to mitigate our present impact in a manner attune to the nuances and complexities of agrarian relations and that avoids creating or intensifying forms of social inequality.

As the urgency of global climate change becomes more acute, the way we eat and produce our food has begun to garner news headlines. Witness the proliferation of public discourse around the distance food travels from farm to table, the rise of online calculators to determine carbon footprints of different foods, and mounting calls for the need to shift toward plant-based diets. Leveraging and redirecting consumer habits may indeed prove crucial in combatting climate change. But to fully grasp the challenges of climate change confronting agriculture, we also need to look beyond our plates and attend to the range of social and environmental relations that agriculture enfolds.

Agriculture: Part of the Problem, and the Solution?

Agriculture is triply implicated in global climate change. While agricultural activities directly contribute to climate change, agricultural production is strongly impacted by climate change. Agriculture, however, may also offer solutions of a kind through pathways to mitigate or reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the report Climate Change and Land released in August 2019 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture accounts for 23% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on what is, and is not, counted, some estimates place the figure considerably higher at 40% or more. Emissions are created directly as greenhouse gases (in agriculture these are principally methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide) are released through biological processes such as enteric fermentation in cattle and soil respiration, fertilizer and manure management, as well as when land is cleared, burned, or ploughed for agriculture. The use of fossil fuels to produce inputs such as fertilizer, to process post-harvest agricultural products, and for transportation, represents indirect sources of emissions connected with agricultural activities.

Global soil organic carbon map (in tonnes per hectare). FAO and ITPS, GSOCmap (v1.5.0), provided under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 licence.

Concurrently, agriculture is directly impacted by climate change. These impacts will be felt unevenly across the world, as changing temperatures and rainfall levels, among other things, will affect the length of growing seasons, the kinds of crops that can be grown in particular environments, crop yields, water availability, and pest and disease ecologies among other things.

But even as agriculture contributes to, and is impacted by, climate change, it is on (and in) land and land use that one may find myriad possibilities for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, the amount of carbon dioxide held in soils is three times higher than that found in the atmosphere, and soils sequester more than four times as much carbon dioxide as living biomass, including forests. This dual position of agriculture, as both a contributor to the global climate crisis and an area that may offer paths toward reducing global emissions, has made it a sensitive and delicate issue for climate negotiations and policy.

Elephant in the Room

Although agriculture accounts for a significant proportion of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, it poses a considerable challenge for the development of policy and regulation. the amount of carbon dioxide held in soils is three times higher than that found in the atmosphere Part of the challenge is assessing the emissions themselves: the global scale, diversity and dynamism of agricultural practices make measuring emissions extraordinarily difficult. But the challenge is much more than a technical or purely scientific one. When it comes to agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, as with climate change more generally, responsibility is not borne evenly geographically or historically. Nor are the current and future impacts. And as much as climate change is an environmental crisis, so too is it one that has arisen through historic and ongoing forms of social inequality and exploitation – and it is likely to further exacerbate them.

Questions about how land is used, by whom, for what, and for whom, have always been deeply political. In the global arena, they raise questions about national sovereignty, food security, and the right to development. Bringing these questions to bear on legislative and policy responses to climate change globally therefore also demands a mindfulness of the ways they may create or exacerbate tensions within and across local, regional, national and global priorities for land use. The fires in the Brazilian Amazon have brought such dynamics into relief, illustrating at one and the same time the often-conflicting claims on the rainforest and the land made by indigenous communities and farmers, by nationally and internationally powerful agricultural lobbies and corporations, by the regional and national state, and by the international community.

Taking steps to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land, while imperative, also demands sensitivity to the social, political and economic complexities of human relations with these environments. This will require institutions, therefore, to grapple not only with the technical complexities of this endeavour, but with social, cultural and political complexities that are equally – if not more – challenging to address. Here, caution is needed to ensure that approaches to mitigating climate change do not conflict with food security, for example by redirecting food production toward the production of bioenergy. Similarly, incentives to encourage afforestation and other mitigation measures must be carefully balanced to ensure that they do not undermine land and tenure rights (or struggles) of local peoples.

Neolithic Reckonings

The advent of settled agriculture, beginning some 12,000 years ago, set in motion changes in land use that profoundly transformed our planet. Simultaneously, as the political scientist James Scott has observed, this Neolithic Revolution transformed us humans too – from the trajectory of our evolution as a species to the development of agrarian societies, polities and states, cultures, economies and empires. And so it is in agriculture, and through the ways we produce and consume food, that we find the complexities and intimacies of human relationships to land and environment laid bare.

Agriculture is a cause and a casualty of climate change; it is, equally, key to finding ways to mitigate our present impact. The Neolithic Revolution shows us, as our present era also does with an historically unique urgency, that human and natural histories (and futures) are not distinct but connected and interdependent. Agrarian relations – which span the globe, stretch across value chains, and are encompassed by commodity, financial and insurance markets among others – are undoubtedly crucial to finding ways to adapt to, and allay, the significant local and planetary repercussions of climate change.

By Shaila Seshia Galvin
Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Header image caption: Ancient Egypt frescoes.

Info Box

The 10 countries holding more than 60% of Soil Organic Carbon (SOC)

*1 petragram = 1 billion tonnes
Source: data from FAO and ITPS, Global Soil Organic Carbon Map, version 1.0 (Rome: FAO, 2017), 6.

Info Box

Box | Breakdown of the Global, Ice-Free Land Surface (130 million km2)

72% of land directly affected by human use: 

  • 37% of pastures, of which 16% are used savannahs and shrublands, 19% extensive pastures and 2% intensive pastures (since 1961, the number of people living in areas affected by desertification almost tripled).
  • 22% of forests, of which 20% are managed for timber and other uses and 2% are planted
  • 12% of cropland, of which 10% are non-irrigated and 2% irrigated (since 1961, the use of fertilisers increased by nearly ninefold and the use of irrigation water doubled.
  • 1% of settlements and infrastructure

28% of unused land:

  • 9% of intact or primary forests
  • 7% of unforested ecosystems, including grasslands and wetlands (since 1970, wetland areas have declined by 30%).
  • 12% of barren wilderness, rocks, etc.

Source: IPCC, Climate Change and Land, August 2019.

Land degradation | Key terms

What is soil?

Like many common words, the word soil has several meanings. In its traditional meaning, soil is the natural medium for the growth of plants. Soil has also been defined as a natural body consisting of layers (soil horizons) that are composed of weathered mineral materials, organic material, air and water. Soil is the end product of the combined influence of climate, topography and organisms (flora, fauna and human) on parent materials (original rocks and minerals) over time. As a result, soil differs from its parent material in texture, structure, consistency, color, chemical, biological and physical characteristics. Soil is an essential component of land and eco-systems, which both are broader concepts encompassing vegetation, water and climate in the case of land, and in addition to those three aspects, also social and economic considerations in the case of ecosystems.

The word soil is also known as dirt, waste or earth.

Soil erosion

Soil erosion is a common term that is often confused with soil degradation as a whole, but in fact refers only to absolute soil losses in terms of topsoil and nutrients. This is indeed the most visible effect of soil degradation, but it does not cover all of its aspects. Soil erosion is a natural process in mountainous areas, but is often made much worse by poor management practices.

Land degradation

Land degradation has a wider scope than both soil erosion and soil degradation in that it covers all negative changes in the capacity of the ecosystem to provide goods and services (including biological and water-related goods and services, and, in the vision of LADA – Land Degradation Assessment in Dryland – also land-related social and economic goods and services).


Desertification is another common term used for (a) land degradation in dryland areas and/or (b) the irreversible change of the land to such a state it can no longer be recovered for its original use.


Mitigation is intervention intended to reduce ongoing degradation. This comes in at a stage when degradation has already begun. The main aim is to halt further degradation and to start improving resources and their functions. Mitigation impacts tend to be noticeable in the short-to-medium term: this then provides a strong incentive for further efforts. The word mitigation is also sometimes used to describe the reductions of impacts of degradation.


Rehabilitation is required when the land is already degraded to such an extent that the original use is no longer possible and the land has become practically unproductive. Longer-term and often more costly investments are needed to show any impact.

Land degradation neutrality

Land degradation neutrality describes the state whereby the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security, remains stable or increases within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems (source: UNCDD).

Land grabbing

The term grabbing was adopted because of the lack of transparency in the set-up of land deals, their dubious legitimacy vis-à-vis communities who until then used these areas, and the dispossession the latter suffered once the deals were implemented. Estimates vary from 20 to 45 million hectares transacted between 2005 and 2010; the most recent estimates are around 30 million hectares in 78 countries. Actually, the calculation of grabbed areas has proven extremely challenging. Information is rarely disclosed given the controversial nature and the lack of legitimacy of those deals. Moreover, land grabs include not only transnational large-scale ones but also a broad range of national and local medium- and small-size land acquisitions that are hard to quantify.

Source (except for “land degradation neutrality” and “land grabbing”: © FAO, “FAO Soils Portal”, accessed 8 November 2019, http://www.fao.org/soils-portal/about/all-definitions/en/.

Interview with Professor Anne Saab

The Graduate Institute, Geneva.

Interview with Professor Filipe Calvão

Graduate Institute, Geneva.

Entretien avec le professeur Jacques Grinevald

Breakdown of the Global, Ice-Free Land Surface (130 million km2)

Source: IPCC, Climate Change and Land (August 2019), 4.

Five maps of land degradation issues

  • Global soil organic carbon map (in tonnes per hectare)

    FAO and ITPS, GSOCmap (v1.5.0), provided under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 licence.

  • Map of active metal and energy minerals mining sites

    Source: SNL Metals & Mining Database, 2017. Provided under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 licence on this page of the World Atlas of Desertification.

  • Map of patterns of aridity

    Source: Global Precipitation Climatology Centre and potential evapotranspiration data from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia (CRUTSv3.20), WAD3-JRC, modified from Spinoni J. 2015 [AP]. Provided under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 licence on this page of the World Atlas of Desertification.

  • Map of transnational land acquisitions

    Copyright: European Environment Agency (EEA).

  • Map of active fires in the world on 25 August 2019

    Source: EFFIS – Copernicus | [Ver. 2.3.3], © OpenStreetMap. Provided under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 licence on this page of the Global Wildfire Information System.

  1. Global soil organic carbon map (in tonnes per hectare)
  2. Map of active metal and energy minerals mining sites
  3. Map of patterns of aridity
  4. Map of transnational land acquisitions
  5. Map of active fires in the world on 25 August 2019
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