Skip to main content

Researchers outline food security, climate change road map

January 20, 2012

While last month’s meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa, made incremental progress toward helping farmers adapt to climate change and reduce agriculture’s climate footprint, a group of international agriculture experts urges scientists to lay the groundwork for more decisive action on global food security in environmental negotiations in 2012.

“Agriculture worldwide is being impacted by climate change and in less than 15 years global population will rise by one billion people,” says Sir John Beddington, lead author of the article “What Next for Agriculture After Durban?” appearing in the Jan. 20 issue of Science magazine. “Policy makers and scientists need to work together, quickly, to chart a course toward a sustainable global food system.”

Photo: Molly Jahn


“The window of opportunity to avert a humanitarian, environmental and climate crisis is rapidly closing and we need better information and tools for managing tradeoffs in how we grow our food and use our resources,” says Molly Jahn, a co-author of the Science article and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Urgent action is needed, within and outside of the UNFCCC, to address the threat of climate change to agriculture and food security.”

Jahn shared this analysis Jan. 19 at a symposium on climate change and food security at the National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment in Washington. Earlier this week, she also headlined at the launch of two new global research initiatives for improved production of maize and wheat led by the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers.

Jahn and many of the other co-authors serve on the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change (CSACC), a group formed in early 2011 to identify research-based avenues toward stable, secure, and sustainable global food systems within the context of a changing climate. Lead author Beddington chairs the commission.

The Science article notes extensive political interest in addressing agricultural policy leading up to and at the December 2011 meeting. A group of African Agriculture Ministers presented a call for action on climate-smart agriculture in September, as did scientists from 38 countries through their Wageningen Statement in October.

In Durban, many public figures called for action on agriculture including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, South African President Jacob Zuma, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, and Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi. Over 500 people joined in the third Agriculture and Rural Development Day meeting where Beddington presented key actions for avoiding a future in which weather extremes produce a succession of food crises.

In particular, the authors cite momentum toward launching a new work program on agriculture climate change adaptation and mitigation under the UNFCCC’s Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), which should help negotiating parties weigh the risks and benefits of different policy and financing choices.

However, integration of agriculture in the climate change negotiating process has moved at a slow pace while climate change and the other forces affecting food security, chiefly rapid population growth, are occurring much faster.

Agreements in Durban did open the door to agriculture, for example in the contexts of deforestation and “sectoral actions” on climate change, which could include those related to the agriculture sector. Calling these actions a “welcome first step” that nonetheless fall far short of what is needed, Jahn and her co-authors call on scientists to assume a more prominent role in supporting global and national political processes to ensure talks in 2012 are informed by clear data on how climate change imperils food security and what can be done to avoid catastrophic agricultural failures, price shocks, famine and hunger.

“Many agricultural practices show promise for lowering risks to food production and greenhouse gas emissions while protecting forests and other natural resources at the same time,” said professor Tekalign Mamo of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture, who spoke at several official events at the Durban gathering. “But existing policies do not sufficiently encourage these sustainable approaches or prepare the global agriculture sector for climate change.”

In outlining opportunities for scientists to assist UNFCCC negotiations, the authors point to seven policy recommendations issued by the CSACC in November 2011 addressing policy, investment, sustainable intensification, safety nets, consumption patterns, food waste and knowledge systems.

The article describes a need for more integrated research focused on sustainable agricultural practices that are appropriate for “different regions, farming systems, and landscapes,” particularly in low income countries where climate change is expected to pose the greatest challenge. The goal, the authors say, is to achieve a “safe operating space” where farmers can produce enough food to meet global needs while adapting to various climatic stresses and also minimizing the environmental impact of food production.

Overall, the authors believe scientists must help improve the “understanding of agricultural practices that will deliver multiple benefits” in areas of climate change adaptation and mitigation, global food security, and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. They highlight several opportunities for the research community to inform the critical link between climate change and food production.

The full article, which may require a subscription, can be found here. Background information, including links to related scientific articles and multimedia, are available here.