29 February 2016

Global Models Must Meet Grassroots Action to Deliver Climate Solutions for Farmers

This is the third article of the UNAI ‘Food Security and Climate Change’ series. Schools and departments which specialise in climate change and food security at UNAI member institutions were asked to submit articles highlighting research and work encompassing the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals and to showcase the importance of sustainable agriculture to mitigate the dangerous effects of climate change, whilst ensuring present and future food security. Please note that the articles are for discussion, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

Climate change poses a threat to food security. This threat was first recognised primarily through the direct impact of climate on crop yields.  However, the relatively simple framing of climate altering yields and, by implication the availability of food, captures only a small part of the problem (see e.g. Wheeler and von Braun, 2014). The complex interdependencies and multiple perspectives involved in climate change make it a so-called “wicked” problem – one that resists solutions precisely because it is not a well-defined problem. Existing global and local food systems are only partially efficient and are not primarily oriented towards food security for all.

The lack of precise predictability in climate can sometimes be used as a reason for inaction. However, in this context multiple perspectives can become an enabling tool, rather than a barrier; where there is uncertainty there can be dialogue. One key area of progress in recent years is in beginning to combine powerful approaches to modelling climate and food production with the capacities and vulnerabilities of those actors who need to adapt to climate change. In doing this, adaptation options can be developed that use predictive science in conjunction with the reality of dealing with climate change on the ground (see e.g. Vermeulen et al., 2013).

Nowhere is this potential more relevant than in the area of climate-smart agriculture, which seeks to adapt to climate change whilst reducing the agricultural greenhouse gas footprint. At the small scale there is a wealth of knowledge being generated, for example in the climate-smart villages championed by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) (Gonsalves 2015). At the large scale there is a significant depth of knowledge on how the climate system interacts with the carbon cycle and land use.

Combining research in this way is not straightforward. Significant attention to framing is required. For example, if projections of future food demand are taken as requirements for future food production, rather than simple extrapolations based on trends, then any options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by altering diets or reducing food waste will automatically be excluded (see e.g. Tomlinson, 2013). Given that for 11 per cent (1.4 billion adults) of the world’s population overconsumption of food presents a threat to health, these options should be central considerations for policy.

There are some excellent examples of how different perspectives and research strands can be combined to provide detailed assessment that go well beyond crop yields, in particular in the assessment of food systems shocks. These are triggered by climate, but ultimately their impact depends upon a complex interplay of economics and policy (see GFS resilience report).

To build on this progress, which to date has occurred mostly through relatively small collaborative reports, we need research programmes that are focused on delivering outcomes for farmers, whilst harnessing the value of underpinning research in both the natural and social sciences. We also need improved ways of producing and communicating information. For example, at the COP21 meeting in Paris (which produced a brighter outlook for future agriculture and food security – see Meadu et al 2015), maps were presented showing where food security is threatened by climate change; these are useful tools, but are necessarily simplistic. There is a danger that the issues facing particular regions are overlooked. Analyses at a range of scales are needed, that consider not only hotspots of vulnerability, but also the positive factors of adaptive capacity and locally appropriate options for action (e.g. Thornton and Herrero 2015; Ovalle-Rivera et al 2015).

Where and how can we expect future progress in understanding the impact of climate change on food security? The intersection of fundamental research and outcome-driven development work is one fertile area. Arguably we need to move beyond the focus on impacts to a greater focus on the action agenda: how communities, governments, companies and development agencies can respond to create a more sustainable future for agriculture and food security under climate change. Countries have signalled their willingness to include agriculture as a key sector for action on climate change through their submissions to the Paris Agreement – 80 per cent included agriculture in mitigation priorities and 65 per cent in adaptation priorities (Richards et al 2015). Putting local farming communities at the centre of policy and practice, linked to higher-level planning will be critical (Wright et al 2014).

Further reading

Gonsalves, J. et al 2015. Climate Smart Villages: Key Concepts. https://ccafs.cgiar.org/publications/climate-smart-villages-key-concepts

Meadu, V., Coche, I., Vermeulen, S. and Friis A.E. The Paris Climate Agreement: what it means for food and farming. CCAFS Info Note.  https://ccafs.cgiar.org/research-highlight/paris-climate-agreement-unlocks-opportunities-food-and-farming

Richards, M. et al 2015. Agriculture's prominence in the INDCs. CCAFS Info Note. https://ccafs.cgiar.org/publications/agricultures-prominence-indcs

Thornton, P.K. and Herrero, M. 2015. Adapting to climate change in the mixed crop and livestock farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa Nature Climate Change 5, 830–836 http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v5/n9/full/nclimate2754.html

Wright, H., Vermeulen, S., Laganda, G., Olupot, M., Ampaire, E. and Jat, M.L. 2014. Farmers, food and climate change: ensuring community-based adaptation is mainstreamed into agricultural programmes. Climate & Development 6: 318–328. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17565529.2014.965654

Andy Challinor is a Professor of Climate Impacts at the University of Leeds where he leads flagship work on Climate Smart Agriculture for Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and is also a Convening Lead Author on the ‘Food Production Systems and Food Security’ chapter of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He is also a member of the Open Panel of Experts of the WMO Commission for Climatology (OPACE).

Sonja Vermeulen is the Head of Research at CCAFS (Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security)where she helps the team to produce research outputs that synthesise across the Flagships and regions, and to engage with policy processes and partners, particularly at the global level. Prior to her position at CCAFS, Dr. Vermeulen served as Director of the Programme on Business and Sustainable Development at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)