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Interview with Gerald Nelson: feeding a hotter, more crowded planet

Farmers in Ghana adapting to the changes in climate. Photo: P. Casier (CGIAR)
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The future of food security and the need for farmers to adapt to a changing climate was recently discussed by CCAFS Theme Leader Gerald C. Nelson when he was interviewed by the National Public Radio (USA). Also participating in the radio program Feeding a Hotter; More Crowded Planet’ was the President o the Earth Policy Institute (EPI) Lester Brown and the director of Oxfam America Gawain Kripke.

Gerald C. Nelson, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and leader of the CCAFS policy analysis research together with the other participants, discussed the challenges of keeping food supplies secure in the face of a changing climate and potential solutions. Since nearly one billion people worldwide don’t have reliable access to food, something climate change might increase, solutions are more than critical. 

Gerald Nelson was asked by the radio presenter Ira Flatow if the drought in East Africa was because of climate change. His response was that we “can never attribute any particular weather event to climate change, which is a long-term change in the way the weather, precipitation and temperature pattern happens. But certainly there are indications that, in fact, our climate has been changing.” Nelson further referred to David Lobell’s and colleagues study on climate change effects in the world. In a recent paper they have been able to tease out some information out of the existing records that suggests that some parts of the world have seen substantial negative effects from climate change. Click here to read more about David Lobell's and colleagues research on climate change effects.

Productivity needs to increase 

The group further discussed the need for farmers to increase production by 2050. According to FAO production has to increase by as much as 70 percent in order to sustain the growing world population. The question that was brought forward was if solutions are within technology such as genetically modified crops or in traditional farming techniques such as providing fertilizers to farmers who can’t afford it. The problem, according to Gawain Kripke, is that agricultural productivity seems to have flattened out over the last several decades, meaning that right now we don’t know if our technology and our techniques are up to the food challenge ahead. Also, the agricultural system is more and more out of sync with the climate system, which is presenting a challenge, according to Lester Brown.

Gerald Nelson mentioned that there are some blue sky efforts that could potentially increase the yield ceiling, but not in the near future. However, farmers in Africa who grow maize and base crops that deal with parasitic plant called striga could use genetically modified versions of maize that would raise their effective yields to two, to three to four times. Also, inputs in African farms are generally very limited. This means that there is a potential to increase yields substantially in the continent. These efforts should also inlcude getting the right prices for the farmers, and enabling them to enter the markets for instance through building infrastructure.

Click here to listen to the whole interview on food security in a growing world.