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Put Farming First

By Thomas Rosswall

25 November, 2009
Copenhagen Official Site

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase from 6 to 9 billion people. Demand for carbon-intensive foods such as meats and oils are also expected to increase.

Meanwhile, yields from key staple crops are expected to decline, especially in many of the poorest countries, due to climate change. Wheat yields in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to fall by 34% and rice output in South Asia by 14%.

In an earlier post on this blog, Kanayo Nwanze, IFAD’s President, outlines the link between food security and climate change. Rather than repeating his message, I instead will focus on how this triple challenge of food security, rural livelihoods development, and environmental sustainability can be incorporated into future climate change strategies.

Silos are for farmers, not for climate thinkers

Climate change impacts every link in the agricultural supply chain. Smallholder African farmers already find new weather patterns undermining their traditional knowledge of when to plant and how to cultivate their crops. Consumers, particularly in the developing world, still face high food prices and the threat of further price increases in the future. Suppliers work around poor transport networks and unharmonised regulatory regimes. Scientists persevere in making their research relevant across disciplines and geographies as well as to farmers and policymakers.

The scale of this climate challenge requires all of these groups to work together with policymakers to find common objectives and solutions. Farming First is a good example of an initiative which is already acting on this goal. Farming First is made up of 124 organisations representing the world’s farmers, scientists, engineers and industry.

Farmers need roads; climate thinkers need roadmaps

Agriculture generally, and farmers especially, are vital to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Farmers are willing to play their part by adopting new practices which deliver our growing food needs in a carbon-efficient manner, but they cannot do so without our support.

Farmers cannot get to market without roads and other vital tools and technologies. Effective infrastructure can help farmers improve their productivity, preventing deforestation and protecting biodiversity while supporting food security. We must also invest in knowledge sharing by creating a dedicated adaptation fund for agriculture which is accessible to farmers’ organisations in developing countries.

Addressing climate change through agriculture is certainly not beyond our capability, but it may well be beyond our current capacity. Farmers need our long-lasting commitment if they are to achieve their true potential for sustainability based on the best local approaches.

The seeds of change must be nurtured and disseminated

Many of the solutions for helping farmers address climate change already exist. These successes need to be scaled up, and they must reach the farmers who need them the most. In addition to investments in road infrastructure linking farms to markets, solutions include integrated crop and pest management, no-till agriculture, intercropping, improved seeds, fertilizer best management practices and investment in storage facilities protecting crops after harvest.

But we must also use our current field of knowledge as the basis for further research and innovation to invent the necessary adaptation and mitigation solutions for the future. For instance, researchers are beginning to use new satellite technology to determine what type of farming techniques are being used. When matched with other agronomic and meteorological information, this mapping system can determine the amount of carbon being captured in the soil (the basis for a voluntary agricultural carbon trading scheme) and can supply farmers with more locally appropriate advice such as when to apply inputs, in what quantity to apply them, and when to harvest.

Copenhagen leaders should embrace the advances being made in measuring soil’s potential in sequestering carbon by including agriculture within multilateral financial mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI). They should also advocate for further robust methodologies and field-testing to overcome remaining uncertainties around measurement, reporting and verification. At this critical and fragile interface of economic markets, our environment and human welfare, science has much to contribute. Let us make good use of it.

Thomas Rosswall is the former Director of the International Council for Science (ICSU). ICSU is one of the founding supporter organisations of Farming First. Mr. Rosswall is currently the Chairman of the CGIAR Challenge Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture & Food Security. He writes here in his capacity as a spokesperson for Farming First.


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