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Cop28 must advance urban agriculture to cut emissions 

The summit in Dubai should advance agricultural technology to mitigate climate change

Cop28 agriculture Reuters/Edgar Su
The UAE has been pioneering indoor vertical farms to reduce reliance on imported produce

The importance of the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector has only recently found its way into international debates.

Around 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions originate from this primary sector. However, if transportation of food via aviation and maritime routes is taken into account, the number increases to one third of global emissions.

The sector is also deeply affected by climate change and its impacts, driving another 120 million farmers into poverty by 2030 under current scenarios.

The international community has recognised this and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change began negotiations in 2011.

Cop23, held in Bonn, Germany in 2017 agreed on the Koronivia Declaration, named after a mountain peak of the presiding country, Fiji.

The Koronivia process is one of the most important tools to address and mitigate climate change because it covers the wide-ranging role of the food system.

So far the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture has agreed on better management of soils, water management, nutrient use, and socio-economic aspects around food security.

What is still missing though is the role of urban agriculture. Here, the GCC has made important investments in recent years to produce more food locally despite the poor climate for agriculture.

Cop28 agricultureReuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Countries at Cop27 agreed to ensure that agriculture and food security remain a priority in the coming years
The role of urban agriculture in the Gulf

One example is Al Badia Farms in Dubai, where vegetables are grown for the domestic market under hydroponic conditions using no pesticides, cutting water use and significantly reducing food miles.

The UAE imports vegetables from around the world. From India alone, vegetables worth $1 billion were imported in 2020. 

The challenge of hydroponics is energy consumption. Indoor farming requires substantial amounts of energy and this can be provided through renewable technologies.

But the major issue is cost due to a lack of scale. Upfront investment costs are probably too high for most developing countries.

However, the UN Green Climate Fund can shoulder some of the investments needed for a transformation of agriculture toward shorter supply chains and lower emissions.

As always, it is a matter of political will. While African countries under the leadership of Kenya have called for a greater utilisation of urban agriculture in recent Koronivia debates, Western countries have been more sceptical as seen at Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021 when the UK presidency hindered progress. 

Transforming agriculture is not only an environmental concern. It is also a social and political issue.

Cop28 agricultureReuters
Small farmers using primitive technologies have increasingly become under pressure economically

It is no coincidence that any US presidential hopeful has to first go through primaries in the American agricultural heartland in the Midwest.

Farmers matter as a voter base. The same is true for the millions of farmers in the Egyptian Delta, the Indian Punjab, the rural areas of France, the Cerrado Savannah in Brazil and many more.

Small farmers using primitive technologies have increasingly become under pressure economically.

Ask any small farmer in the world whether their children should inherit the farm and continue with the agricultural business: the answer will most likely be negative because of the poor livelihoods in agriculture. 

Continuing with the idea that small farmers must be supported at all costs rarely meets the intended goals. It leads to “social reproduction” as Marx would have called it.

However, it is exactly the mode of production that causes high greenhouse gas emissions. How can one blame a poor farmer overusing fertilisers and pesticides if his or her livelihood is highly precarious? 

Make no mistake, transforming agriculture away from small farmers to high-tech urban farms is no silver bullet.

It is unlikely to lead to food self-sufficiency as staple commodities such as cereals will undoubtedly need to be traded in the future.

But it can offer pragmatic solutions by identifying pathways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in certain agricultural activities such as farming of perishables.

Agriculture will not become a net zero sector in any future scenario but it can see substantial greenhouse gas reductions while moving more farmers out of the poverty zone in both industrialised and developing countries.

Putting urban agriculture on the agenda and establishing a future Koronivia JointWork roadmap should begin at Cop28 led by the UAE.

It can help to address one of the biggest challenges in the fight against climate change in the coming years and decades.       

Martin Keulertz is a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England