What are the challenges of a climate-smart agri-food system?

This week the Grantham Centre and the Worldwide Universities Network hosted a discussion at the UN Conference on Climate Change to consider how we might adapt our food system in response to climate change. Here, Professor Peter Horton FRS, Associate Director of the Grantham Centre, reflects on the issues raised and stresses the need for an integrated system of feeding populations around the world.

Catch up on this week’s COP21 discussion on a climate-smart agri-food system
Find out more about the Grantham Centre at COP21

HortonphotoA food system in crisis

Food is at the heart of the climate change debate – our food production system contributes about 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through agriculture – and is predicted to be increasingly disrupted by the extreme weather events such as floods and droughts.

Add to this the problem of increasing food demand from a population growing towards 10 billion, the transition of diets towards those bad for our health and our environment, and the depletion of the soil and other natural resources needed to grow crops, and we see a food system in crisis.

The decisions made at the COP21 climate change talks in Paris will help shape how, when and if we can resolve this crisis.

Can we develop a sustainable agri-food system?

The question is, can we evolve an agri-food system which is sustainable, resilient to the effects of climate change and has low greenhouse gas emissions and yet meets the goal of food security set out by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation – ‘when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’.

At present we do not have this – current systems and practices not only deliver insufficient food but are economically and environmentally unsustainable, inequitable and pose a major risk to human health. A food system in which nearly one billion people are undernourished and 1.5 billion are overweight is at the very least testament to a massive system failure.

The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, in collaboration with the Worldwide Universities Network, has brought together international experts in Paris to debate this issue, and answer the question – What are the research challenges associated with developing a climate-smart agri-food system?

Speakers at the event highlighted several major issues, which show how imperative it is that world leaders establish a historic global deal on climate change including:

  • The fact that food production will become more variable in the future because more frequent extreme weather will disrupt our food supply, threatening not only increased undernutrition but also political instability – such as the unrest that preceded the civil war in Syria which was, in part, triggered by drought.
  • How, without more crop production per hectare, cultivation will move onto non-crop land, drastically increasing greenhouse gas emissions. But this could be avoided if we are willing to invest in and adopt innovation in agri-technology and farming practice.
  • The depletion of our soils from decades of agriculture means we must find a new solution based on new thinking and rediscover the links between crop growth and soil fungi and bacteria in combination with a farming practice that does not disrupt soil structure. The need for inventive and innovative approaches could reduce the greenhouse gas emission arising from our use of excessive amounts of fertilizer.
  • How the food crisis will not be resolved from new technology alone but innovation within small farming communities could be critical, and the importance of understanding how human nutrition and climate change are linked.

Some questioned whether it can even be possible to have an agriculture which is highly productive, sustainable in terms of resource use, and resilient to external shocks.
Another concern was how extreme weather events impact on the proposed new technologies needed for sustainable agriculture, particularly the effect on soil erosion, but also whether the required higher yielding crops will be able to withstand periods of heat or drought.

Social justice also came up – can we have a global agri-food system that is socially just; how do we bring innovation into small rural communities where the costs of new agri-technology are too high and where climate change impacts are likely to be greatest?

Finally the debate focussed on how to change human behaviour and practice: how do we bring about the changes necessary for the uptake of sustainable healthy diets and what support mechanisms are likely to be successful to achieving this?

We need to address all parts of the agri-food system

In the end it became clear that an integrated framework for agri-food research is needed. Rather than approaching this crisis as a series of separate domains or via single-disciplinary perspectives, an integrated, interdisciplinary approach is required, one that emphasises the need for ‘joined-up thinking’ across the whole agri-food system.

Social and environmental questions need to be simultaneously addressed and framed in equal partnerships between interdisciplinary researchers. The links between all parts of the agri-food system have to be considered, including land-use, crop production and protection, food processing, storage and distribution, retailing and consumption, and their consequences for nutrition and public health.

Integrating research approaches are needed: a method for analysing and modelling agri-food systems in their totality so we can make the right intervention at the right time in the right place – a key point is that no two farms or two crops are the same and solutions have to be tailor-made for each one.

Equally, we need to think about the ethical, legal and political tensions that characterise such diverse agri-food systems. In this way we can proceed with a rational, evidence-based process for identifying, testing and implementing the new agri-technologies and agri-food policies needed to meet the challenge of developing a climate-smart agri-food system.

(via www.sheffield.ac.uk/news)