New global research alliance to tackle agricultural greenhouse gas emissions
As world leaders strive to reach agreement on tackling climate change, two side events in Copenhagen, Denmark focus on how agriculture and industrial biotechnology can help to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Maive Rute, the new Director of the Food, Agriculture, Fisheries and Biotechnologies Directorate at the European Commission's Directorate General for Research, is heavily involved in both events. Before leaving for Copenhagen, she told CORDIS News about the issues proposed for discussion. According to Mrs Rute, one of the highlights of her trip will be the launch of a new Global Research Alliance on agricultural greenhouse gases. 'If we look at the greenhouse gas emissions coming from different sectors of the economy, agriculture is unfortunately one which produces a large share of GHG emissions,' she pointed out. A large proportion of these emissions come from livestock, but certain tilling practices also trigger the release of carbon dioxide from the soil, and a lot of deforestation takes place to free up land for farmers. Yet even as the agriculture sector is required to reduce these emissions, it is also being asked to provide food, fuel and fibre for the world's growing population. Mrs Rute notes that there are a lot of areas where agricultural GHG emissions can be reduced. These include precision and low input farming techniques, as well as technological solutions. For example, some people talk about capturing the gas produced by livestock and turning it into biogas. Another option is to change animals' diet in a bid to reduce their emissions. 'So there are different options available and we need to look at what mixture would help us, on the one hand, to reduce GHG emissions but, on the other hand, still to provide sufficient food to the growing population,' concluded Mrs Rute. The new alliance is a New Zealand-based initiative (a very high proportion of the country's GHG emissions come from agriculture). The founding members of the alliance are: Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay and Vietnam. The European Commission is also heavily involved in the initiative and plans to support it with secretarial assistance, for example. However, Mrs Rute believes that the EU's most important contribution to the scheme will be its long experience in bringing together national research programmes to tackle shared problems, for example through the ERA-NET scheme and now through the joint programming initiatives. During the event, the EU's Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR) will present its ideas on how the EU can coordinate European research on agriculture, food security and climate change. The coordination of funds and activities is vital; in recent years, agricultural research budgets at both European and national level have not been given a high priority as food security has not been a problem. With the changing climate, agriculture faces new challenges. Crops will need to be better able to withstand droughts and extreme weather conditions. Diseases that are currently confined to the tropics may follow the warmer conditions north to Europe. Another sector that has a lot to offer in terms of GHG emission reductions is industrial biotechnology. 'There are interesting technologies available today which we can already use,' Mrs Rute told CORDIS News. 'We should try to valorise and capture the knowledge that has been created and use it better in industry. 'In addition, and this is the role I see for the European level, we need to push forward and explore new areas where solutions can be found.' One such area involves biofuels; we need to switch from using food crops as biofuels to using waste materials, such as residues from agriculture and other production processes, Mrs Rute says. A good example of how industrial biotechnology can cut emissions is the detergents used to wash laundry. Because they allow households to wash their clothes at 30°C instead of 60°C, they can dramatically reduce emissions, Mrs Rute explains. Looking to the future, she adds that industrial biotechnology could help to clean contaminated environments and clean waste water from industry. 'There again biotechnology can offer solutions and we fund research to come up with interesting possibilities,' she said.