Agriculture – on which we all depend for our food – is under threat from climate change. There is no doubt that systems worldwide will have to adapt, but while consumers may barely notice in developed countries, millions of people in developing countries face a very real and direct threat to their food security and livelihoods.
Even without climate change, many agricultural systems in developing countries are nearing crisis point. Feeding a rapidly rising global population is taking a heavy toll on farmlands, rangelands, fisheries and forests. Water is becoming scarce in many regions. Climate change could be the additional stress that pushes systems over the edge.
We know that climate change will mean higher average temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and rising sea levels. There will be more, and more intense, extreme events such as droughts, floods and hurricanes. Although there is a lot of uncertainty about the location and magnitude of these changes, there is no doubt that they pose a major threat to agricultural systems. Developing countries are particularly vulnerable because their economies are closely linked to agriculture, and a large proportion of their populations depend directly on agriculture and natural ecosystems for their livelihoods. Thus, climate change has the potential to act as a ‘risk multiplier’ in some of the poorest parts of the world, where agricultural and other natural resource-based systems are already failing to keep pace with the demands on them.
The contribution of agriculture itself to climate change is often overlooked. Current practices, including the conversion of forests and grasslands for crops and pasture, result in significant releases of greenhouse gases – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that 31% of total emissions in 2004 came from agriculture and forestry. This clearly needs to be addressed in mitigation strategies.
The climate is changing, and agricultural systems must also change if we are to avoid catastrophe. Farming, fishing and forest communities will need to adapt their livelihood systems, while mitigation efforts must address both the contribution of agriculture to the climate change problem, and the great potential of different resource management practices in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The changes that are needed will be many and diverse. They will happen at the local level, tailored to local circumstances and ecosystems, and chosen and managed by the communities themselves. They should have immediate benefits for the communities, as well as long-term benefits that future generations will enjoy. They must be based on sound science, and enabled by effective policy at all levels. They will build on the wealth of knowledge that already exists, and the new directions that research must now take to meet this enormous challenge.
The wealth of knowledge that already exists includes the results of more than three decades of research under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The 15 research centres supported by the CGIAR, and their many partners, have been working over this period to help poor farming, fishing and forest communities achieve sustainable livelihoods in the face of variable and uncertain weather. The accumulated experience and expertise can be applied to address the additional threat posed by a changing climate.
Indeed, climate change provides a massive and urgent incentive to intensify efforts to disseminate the fruits of this research, and to continue developing adaptation and mitigation options. At least in the near years, the benefits of adopting many of the existing technologies – such as improved crop, soil and water management practices and stress-tolerant varieties – could be sufficient to override the negative impacts of climate change. And the immediate benefits, in terms of improved food security, livelihoods and environmental security, make this a ‘no regrets’ approach – these changes are worthwhile whatever happens to the climate. At the same time it is logical that learning to cope with weather variability today paves the way for adapting to climate change tomorrow.
But climate change also promises new and unprecedented challenges, and demands new and urgent efforts to meet these. We need to take rapid strides forward in understanding what is going to happen to our farming, fishery and forest systems as the climate changes; the interactions that will occur with other global changes that are also under way; and within this complex and dynamic situation, the trade-offs we may face between food security, livelihoodsand environmental security. We need to develop new and inventive responses to what is likely to be the most complex challenge that the world’s food production systems have ever faced. To do this, we need new ways of working, new non-traditional partnerships and truly integrated approaches. And we need much better communications between all stakeholders, so that decision making at all levels is based on the best knowledge available.
These needs provide the drive behind a new initiative led by the Alliance of the CGIAR Centers and the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP). The Challenge Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), which will launch in early 2010, unites the world’s best researchers in agricultural science, climate science and earth system science to address the climate change–food security problem. The transformative research programme provides a framework for these communities to work together and, by doing so, to go beyond their traditional boundaries and open up new and unique possibilities in the search for solutions.