What past research missed, where future challenges lie, are how this research program embraces the complexity of global food security.
It's Monday morning in Ithaca, New York and Bailey Hall is packed. Being one of the finest concert venues Cornell University has to offer, over the years it has witnessed musical geniuses like Luciano Pavarotti and Isaac Stern. This week, however, Bailey Hall is witness to a different kind of song: the keynote speeches of the 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security, held from October 12 – 14.
Among the speakers are scientists from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).
In one of the conference’s first keynotes, CCAFS Program Director Bruce Campbell addresses the plenary with a presentation about reducing climate risks to food systems across the globe.
A graph with confidence intervals pops up on the screen behind Campbell. “There are plenty of studies like this,” he says, referring to a paper on crop yield decline in the Sahel. “In general the picture is very pessimistic,” he continues. Africa will see a decline in yields in many areas, and improvements in some others, “but whatever the system, by 2050 you have to expect a transformation from one sort of crop system to another,” says Campbell.
Problems with the studies
“There are 3 problems with these sorts of studies: First of all, the narrow focus on crop yields,” Campbell explains.
Too few studies look at other kinds of factors affecting food systems, such as future trends of shock pest events. There are indications of pests moving pole-wards at a rate of about 2.7 km per year. For instance, a specific potato pest called potato tuber moth, will expand into an additional 2.5 million hectares, causing widespread damage to potato production. However, this type of study is relatively rare, Campbell claims.
“The second problem,” he continues “is that the climate models do not justify doing thousands of these impact studies because there’s hardly any improvement in these models.”
A comparison of the 2007 IPCC models with their 2014 equivalents shows that there has been almost no improvement in terms of predicting weather changes for particular regions. In southern Africa in 2007 the models failed to predict changes in half the cases with almost no change seven years on.
“The third reason why these impact studies are limited is because they seem to focus just on one aspect of food security, namely, the availability,” Campbell says.
To understand this point we need to remember the Food and Agriculture Organization’s four pillars of food security, namely availability, stability of supply, access and utilisation. Focusing on one of these four pillars, while neglecting the other three is to not appreciate the complexity of global food security.
Take utilisation: “We all know how wealth and many other factors determine what one eats in a week,” Campbell says. In fact, there are plenty of cross-country comparisons about this. But, Campbell wants to emphasise, there are also differential adaptive capacities within communities, so when climate change hits, there will be different outcomes which will lead to differential food access. Because of this, “we have to get much more complex and think about the full implications of climate change, not just crop yield,” Campbell concludes.
Four major factors will challenge global food systems in the near future, according to Campbell. They relate to reducing emissions, dealing with complexity, identifying a portfolio of options and transforming research.
With climate change showing severe impacts, research has to shift towards outcomes and action, Campbell says. But how?
“We frame our work within the concept of climate-smart agriculture, which attempts to address productivity, adaptation and mitigation challenges, as well as the trade-offs and synergies amongst those things,” he explains.
"We understand climate-smart agriculture in a broad perspective,” Campbell says. This implies a focus on crops, livestock, fish and landscape management as well as the services and policies that influence the local practices, such as insurance and forecasting. Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) considers the food system as a whole. “On top of that we aim to make sure that we’re considering the social aspects, so we’re thinking about rich and poor, women farmers and men farmers,” Campbell adds.
1. Reducing emissions
There is undue controversy about the first challenge: reducing emissions.
“Some people may argue that agriculture should be excused from emission targets because food is a basic need,” Campbell explains. “I would say that it’s extremely difficult to excuse agriculture. If we want to keep the earth below the 2 degree target, then we have to keep the emissions to 22 gigatonnes.”
If agriculture is excused from emissions, however, it will make up half of overall global emissions by mid-century. Therefore, “it seems highly unlikely that we have to reduce emissions in all the other sectors and let agriculture off the hook,” Campbell says.
One example of a practice which can greatly reduce emissions from rice systems is called Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD). A rice field is kept flooded for 15 days when flowering and then only irrigated when needed throughout the season. This practice reduces water consumption by 30 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50 percent without compromising yield. But there are no silver bullets in development research and AWD is not to be excluded from that rule.
“The problem is that Alternate Wetting and Drying is highly context-specific. In mid-slopes, in summer-crops, you only reduce GHG emissions by 20 percent. In other circumstances with carbon-rich soils AWD actually increases emissions."
One thing is clear enough from the research: meaningful and important reductions in emissions from agriculture are possible. But you have to know your terrain in order to fulfil this potential and avoid doing more harm than good.
The second challenge Campbell identifies lies in the complexity of global food security. He laments that “one often gets lost in complexity and never gets to any action... but complexity is not your enemy. Complexity is something you really have to embrace and understand but move rapidly towards action.”
But where is the entry point for research? “We find a useful way of entering these kinds of situations is through scenario envisioning with policymakers. We’ve just conducted an exercise with SPC, which is the peak body for the Pacific, and many policymakers looking at different scenarios, identifying action agendas in terms of climate change and research agendas,” Campbell says.
3. Identifying a portfolio of options
The third challenge relates to identifying a portfolio of options. What do we do in different places, sites, communities and countries? “It would be lovely to say ‘These are the CSA options and these are not the CSA options’ but unfortunately, as illustrated by the previous example of rice, context is really important, so that many practices can be CSA somewhere but none are likely to be CSA everywhere,” Campbell explains. “This is not what policymakers want to hear,” he adds.
CCAFS has put together the so-called CSA Plan, covering everything from situation analysis and targeting and prioritising to the monitoring and evaluation of CSA practices.
Situation analyses have been completed in 6 countries in Latin America and now another 10 are being done in Africa. This is a very broad sweep of what indicators and targets to achieve, also addressing questions such as: What are the future climate impacts in specific places? What are the ongoing and promising CSA practices and what are the entry points for action?
The next step is the targeting and prioritising. "Here we go through a process of developing a long list of CSA options, then working with experts and local stakeholders to look at the trade-offs and synergies amongst the 3 components of climate-smart agriculture. After a shortlist has been developed by those experts we do a more detailed analysis of each potential option and then finally the stakeholder group selects the final portfolio for investment," Campbell says.
CGIAR scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have gone through 140,000 scientific papers in their current effort of preparing a compendium of CSA practices.
4. Orienting research towards outcomes and action
The fourth and last challenge relates to transforming research, for which Campbell and research partners have developed a list of 10 principles.
“We would like to see more research being action-oriented,” Campbell says. To achieve this, one of the things he recommends is a rule of thirds: “Essentially we believe that one third of your resources should go to understanding the needs, working with stakeholders, to comprehend what kinds of products they need.”
The second third, then, should go into the actual research work, again, often in partnership with stakeholders. While the last third should be spent on getting the information out for use, including capacity development, communication strategies and dissemination.
Another principle for more action-oriented research is that of tackling power and influence. Many of the available options are not simple technical solutions that can be put in place. Instead, they are wicked problems with winners and losers, which call for research with a strong social science behind as well as an engagement process that reflects an understanding of power and influence.
To summarise, there are some major adaptation challenges ahead. Not all research should focus on impact studies on crop yields. There is a major challenge around reducing emissions, which might transform the way agriculture is practices in coming decades. "Researchers should aim to scale up action on the ground by not getting lost in the complexity of the situation and identifying policies and practices to be prioritised," Campbell concludes.