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Ensuring Food Security, Tackling Climate Change

Smallholder agroforestry in Kenya is an example of sustainable intensification, according to Achieving Food Security in the Face of Climate Change report.
Smallholder agroforestry in Kenya is an example of sustainable intensification, according to Achieving Food Security in the Face of Climate Change report.
Joe DeCapua

A high-level international panel has announced its recommendations for achieving food security while addressing the effects of climate change. The recommendations from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change released Wednesday come in advance of the U.N. climate change conference this month in Durban, South Africa.

The panel includes scientists from 13 countries who are experts in agriculture, climate, economics, trade, nutrition and ecology. It spent the past year analyzing many climate studies – a year that included climbing food prices, humanitarian disasters and political unrest -- all of which, it says, threaten food security. The panel says climate change will only make things worse.

“The current situation is just unacceptable. A large portion of the human population is food insecure and were vulnerable to food insecurity. A billion people or so go hungry and that is genuine poverty. And something on the order of another billion people don’t have appropriate nutrition. It’s seen and it’s arguably ironic that at the same time there [are] about a billion people or so who are suffering from chronic disease due to over consumption,” said Professor John Beddington, commission chair and Britain’s chief scientific advisor.

Soaring commodity prices, he said, have pushed more people into poverty.

“We’ve seen in the last two or three years significant price spikes, following on decades of declines in real food prices. And those spikes have really presented real problems, exacerbating poverty. Something of the order of a hundred million people went into poverty following the 2007/8 price spike – another 40 or so million went into poverty after the 2010/11 price spike,” he said.

Professor Beddington said the effects of climate change can already be seen but warns there’s more to come.

Lasting effects, growing needs

“The greenhouse gases already in our atmosphere will drive climate change for the next two or three decades. We’re going to see, and all models, and indeed all analyses, indicate that there’s already a trend that we’re going to see more extreme events -- high temperatures, droughts, floods -- and actually these are already becoming more frequent. And we can expect these more severe events leading to really difficult social, economic and ecologic consequences,” he said

The prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa is given as one example. Droughts in the region have become much more frequent.

The current world population stands at seven billion. It’s forecast to increase to nine billion by the year 2050. Commission member Megan Clarke, head of Australia’s national science agency, said a lot more food will be needed.

“The challenge that’s ahead of us globally is really quite hard even to comprehend because we must increase global food production by 2050 by some 30 to 80 percent and reduce our emissions by half. So to put it another way, as my children grow older over the next 60 years, we’ll need to produce as much food [as] has ever been produced in human history. And at the same time, during the period, we’ll have to learn how to halve our emission rate from agriculture. So this is a huge challenge,” she said.

There are many regions, she said, where the amount of food being produced is well below the amount that could be produced.

“In much of sub-Saharan Africa, we know that we can use really small doses of fertilizer at the base of individual plants and improve productivity. And we could also reduce the amount of fertilizer used. Similar, we know in China that there’s evidence that the current levels of high rates of fertilizer use can be reduced. And we can reduce nitrous oxide emissions and maintain our productivity,” she said.

Following the recent food supply and price crises, world leaders pledged to invest much more in agriculture, especially smallholder agriculture. While some investments have been made, many experts and agriculture-related agencies say a great deal more is needed.

Commission member Adrian Fernandez, head of Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology, said funding is an issue that cannot be ignored.

“This is one of the big topics that will be discussed in Durban. Financing – how can we mobilize much more resources to address the problems of climate change? -- in this case related to such an important issue, which is food security and agricultural production,” he said.

What to do?

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change has released seven recommendations. They include integrating food security and sustainable agriculture into both global and national policies; raising the level of agricultural investment; sustainably increasing agricultural production while reducing the environmental impact; and assisting vulnerable populations to adapt to climate change and food insecurity.

Other recommendations are “reshaping food access and consumption patterns” to ensure basic nutritional needs are met; reducing the amount of food lost or wasted in production; and establishing “comprehensive, shared and integrated information systems” to track changes in land use, food production and climate change.

Most scientists agree that global temperatures are rising and that man-made emissions are a big part of it. But some scientists disagree and say human contribution to climate change is much smaller.

The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban, known as COP 17, will be held from November 29th through December 9th.

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