Over the weekend, discussions in the committee handling the issue failed to reach agreement, largely due to differences over whether to include the role of agriculture in reducing – or mitigating - greenhouse gas emissions.
"Some of the developing countries don't want any mention of mitigation, and I think that's because they don't believe there should be any targets that affect their food security," said Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR research programme on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS).
Agriculture is responsible for 14 percent of global climate-changing emissions, a figure that rises to 19 to 29 percent if all the processes of food production - from farming and storage to transportation and refrigeration - are included, according to the CCAFS.
Some poorer nations argue that provisions on agriculture under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should focus only on how to help farmers adapt to more extreme weather and longer-term climate shifts.
If nations commit to limiting emissions from their farm sectors, they fear they may have to cut further and faster than they are prepared to, damaging their ability to increase crop production to feed growing populations.
But Mohammed Asaduzzaman, research director of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies and a member of the South Asian nation's negotiating team, said this was a misconception.
"Even if you agree to (mitigation in farming), it doesn't have to start right now, and when you start, it can go on for a longer period. It doesn't have to be in a year or two - so you will have time to adjust," he told an agriculture conference held alongside the U.N. talks.
In Bangladesh, where 80 percent of farmers are smallholders, it will be a challenge to persuade them to adopt new practices and to disseminate the knowledge and technologies required for change, he added.
"But the one area where there should not be much of a disagreement is that there is a lot of waste and inefficiency within agriculture. If you cut that waste, even by half, there will be a lot of mitigation without jeopardising food security and without jeopardising adaptation," Asaduzzaman added.
GETTING ON WITH IT
In many developing countries, farmers' associations, research institutes and development groups are already promoting a switch to techniques that can reduce carbon, nitrogen and methane emissions from agriculture. These include minimum tilling of the soil, planting trees alongside crops, using less water in rice cultivation, restoring degraded land, preventing burning of vegetation, and limiting excessive fertiliser use.
In Malawi, aid donors have provided funding for farmers to plant more than 70 million trees. Some 37,000 farmers there are also practising conservation agriculture, in which the earth is not ploughed and crop residues are used as mulch on the soil, increasing carbon storage and water retention.
Dyborn Chibonga, chief executive officer of the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi (NASFAM), said his organisation promotes "climate-smart" agriculture, which boosts yields and resilience to climate stresses, while cutting emissions. Demand among farmers wanting to take up new methods is high and hard to meet, he added.
"Despite NASFAM's will to assist as many smallholder farmers in Malawi as possible, financial and social problems have impinged its ability to do so," Chibonga said.
CCAFS head Campbell noted that the lack of an agreement on agriculture at the U.N. climate talks, due to end on Friday, would make it hard to direct flows of climate finance to the sector on a large scale.
Nineteen international organisations, including agricultural research, water management and farmers' groups, have called for climate negotiators to establish a formal work programme on agriculture, to advance scientific and technical understanding and inform decision making on food security and climate change. That now looks unlikely to happen in Doha.
"It seems there is no chance of any global effort at taking agriculture seriously," Campbell said.
Many developed countries have expressed their willingness to assist developing-country farmers to adapt, he noted. But they also want to include mitigation in any agreement to start work on agriculture under the UNFCCC.
Masahito Enomoto, director of environment policy at Japan's ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, said "a very delicate balance" needs to be struck between adaptation and mitigation.
"We should talk in a more constructive way in that dialogue, because we are trying to cooperate with developing countries to support their mitigation measures... not push them to do it," he told AlertNet.
Japan, for example, is working with the Vietnamese government to find ways of reducing emissions from rice paddies without hurting yields, he added.
Robert Carlson, president of the World Farmers' Organisation, said sustainable agriculture actually requires few trade-offs between climate change adaptation and mitigation.
"A farmer that adopts techniques that put more carbon in the soil, that add organic matter to the soil, increases the water uptake and storage in the soil. It’s good for the environment. It captures carbon. It’s good for production in the long-term... Adaptation and mitigation go together very well on farms," he told the Agriculture Day gathering.
But if the world does not plan ahead for food security, then people will resort to desperate and environmentally damaging measures to feed themselves, such as clearing forests for cultivation, he warned.
Mahmoud Solh, director general of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) argued that while agriculture contributes to the problem of climate change through emissions, it is also "a major part of the solution".
"If we do not put agriculture on the agenda (at U.N. climate talks), this means we are not serious and we are unwise," said. "We have to think about the global interest rather than individual country interests in economic and other areas."