Climate Change Raises the Stakes for Food and Agricultural Research

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

The seminal connection between food, agriculture, and climate was underscored in New York at the Development Dialogues hosted by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in association with the UN Climate Summit. The week’s events energized discussions about how to move towards more sustainable and resilient “climate-smart” agriculture and food systems.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and one of the concluding speakers in the Development Dialogues, pointed out that agriculture, forestry, and land use today accounts for nearly a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change. While there is clearly a need to mitigate these emissions, Pachauri noted that greater adaptation of production systems also is essential. Agricultural productivity is already being negatively affected by higher temperatures and more extreme weather events – even as the demands for food and feed are rising. This critical global challenge is also a challenge for U.S. agriculture.

While the issue of climate was clearly front and center, it was not the only topic of discussion. There was a rich and varied tapestry painted by the participants and panelists, and throughout my participation in the event, I gained new insights from both the formal speakers and networking opportunities. The breadth and depth of the event was remarkable and rewarding. Development Dialogues presenters came from government organizations around the world (including Tjada McKenna from USAID), scientific institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and academia. Speakers provided a rich mix of perspectives, priorities, and problems. They discussed local issues – whether subsidizing fertilizer or insuring farmers against weather risks or building more roads made more sense for transforming farm productivity in Nigeria and how women farmers in Uganda and Kenya could be supported in their efforts both to increase their farm output and feed their children. They also discussed global issues such as the future of agricultural trade, land use changes associated with population growth as well as farming decisions, and water scarcity. All of these are challenges in themselves – solving them in the context of a changing climate magnifies their complexity and demands we take a long-term and comprehensive approach.

More and better knowledge is a critical factor. It was encouraging that the need for more research, including social science research, was underscored repeatedly – and not only by food, agriculture, and climate researchers. NGOs like Helen Keller International expressed their need to understand how interventions can work better for both women and men, improve nutrition outcomes, and generate more income for producers.

The global food and agricultural community has a vital interest in understanding and influencing the processes associated with climate change. Diverse sectors and multidisciplinary research at both local and global levels will be essential to developing resilient food systems and sustainable landscapes and ecosystems that are adapted to the pace of climate change already in motion.

“Climate-smart agriculture” may be the latest catchphrase, but to me, it helps us to think in new dimensions. As the global climate change negotiations move into high gear – with a preparatory meeting in Lima, Peru, in December and a meeting aimed at achieving global agreement in Paris next year – we will be hearing a lot more about this concept. Events like the CGIAR Development Dialogues show that there is energy behind climate-smart agriculture, as farmers, researchers, and businesses join in making food and agricultural systems more resilient in the face of climate change.

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