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Over the past week the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has caused global headlines for its solemn warning of the possibility of a climate-induced future food crisis.
The report warns of food price spikes and supply shortages as the effects of increased temperatures, more unpredictable rainfall, and increased salinity in farmland from rising sea levels continue to take hold.
Climate change is lowering cereal yields and reducing fish catches, and along with high and volatile food prices, these impacts are spreading hunger and malnutrition among the world’s poorest people.
In parallel, demand for food will rise to serve the world’s growing population. Global diets also are changing to incorporate more high-quality foods, and the developing world’s cities are growing.
Africa, for example, will have twice as many people in 2050 as it has today, most of them in cities. Nigeria’s population will soon reach 440 million, surpassing that of the United States. By 2050 we expect to have 10 billion mouths to feed.
Things can only get more dire, it would seem.
But does this inevitably mean greater levels of hunger and malnutrition? More food price spikes? Another round of riots as populations panic over shortages and prices of their staple foods?
Not if we act now.
Investment in agricultural innovation is key. And we need to do more of it - soon. Some of the most effective ways to deal with climate change, such as adapting crop varieties and livestock to the new conditions, take a full 20 years to develop.
For instance, publicly funded CGIAR research programs are developing drought-tolerant maize for farmers in southern Africa and flood-tolerant rice which is now being rolled out to millions of smallholders in Asia, after years of research and testing. Research has also developed crop varieties that are higher in vitamins and minerals with a significant impact on health as well as helping to climate proof the food system.
The biodiversity in plants, livestock, trees and fish must also be protected. They contain important genetic diversity, whose variations have evolved over millennia and provide the basic template for climate change adaptation and mitigation.
A worldwide network of gene banks will provide access to this variation and provide new opportunities to rapidly generate new breeds of crops and livestock that will withstand the effects of a changing climate.
Research is also looking into better farming practices. The UK’s Department for International Development is helping to fund work by CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) to advance EverGreen Agriculture—the integration of trees into crop and livestock systems.
This approach is helping millions of smallholder farmers across Africa improve their farming, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These “fertilizer trees” improve soil fertility and increase food production, while providing an array of benefits such as fodder, fuel, medicine, fiber and income.
Furthermore, we need to integrate how the agricultural, forestry and fisheries sectors work within the broader landscape in which they produce food. Innovative finance that supports sustainable land use practices, enhanced infrastructure and markets to reduce losses and waste, and strengthened land tenure will also help ensure functioning food systems in the face of climate change.
And the way we govern will have to change as well. Innovation in policy and institutions are equally important. Prices of food and natural resources need to reflect the costs to the environment and climate. Right now, the exclusion of these costs from food production leads to over-use of natural resources.
On the other hand, new initiatives such as providing crop and livestock insurance can boost farmers’ ability to cope. A CCAFS programme has rolled out such an insurance scheme to farmers and herders in Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Malawi and Mozambique, making available affordable protection from extreme weather.
Far-sighted new policies must advocate for more transparent free trade, fair taxation and economic incentives, regulation and improved knowledge. Revising carbon credits to small farmers can encourage them to adopt sustainable farming practices. Campaigns can promote behavior change that reduces food waste, both amongst consumers as well as with manufacturers and retailers.
In the short run, a strong social protection system is needed to cover poor people, especially smallholder farmers who are particularly vulnerable to climate change.
Yes, climate change is already affecting food security, and we are all likely to be affected, both in our stomachs and in our pockets. But a nightmare scenario is not inescapable. We will be able to address demands for food in the face of climate change if we take this wake-up call as urgent and serious, and further invest in research for a smarter agriculture to drive development.