Consulting on Food Security and Climate Change

In ITP, Networked Sensors for Development

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The Exemplar for Food Security and Agriculture clearly illustrates the need for climate services to sit at the center of the coordinated effort between policy makers, farmers, distribution, weather professionals and other related parties. The rise in extreme weather events and natural disasters is causing instability in the food system, and therefore, threatening three out of four points that make up food security according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization – food access, food availability and stability. I fully agree that better coordination through technology and capacity building (i.e. training) are the keys to mitigating risks posed by extreme weather. However, simply from the introduction, it seems that the Exemplar focuses more on a reactionary approach than a proactive one. To elaborate, I mean that they mention the negative implications of climate change thoroughly, but only very briefly mention what causes climate change. This may have been intentional but seeing that agriculture makes up 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions by some accounts (Source), it’s necessary to take a two-pronged approach to the problem of food security.

 

problem and how to intervene

Not only did the Exemplar talk about the food security problem and the influence of climate change, but it also framed the problem within the scenario that we’re going to have 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050. This is a number that comes up a lot whenever talking about food systems. Typically, you see it used to justify GMO varietals and the need to improve yield.

 

“Food security is a complex issue that involves technological as well as environmental factors. Technological advances ranging from improved crop varieties and farm management systems to decision support tools for strategic long-term planning have benefitted agricultural productivity.” – (Source, Page 4)

 

This phrase from the Exemplar could be interpreted as a sort of affirmation of the industrial agriculture model. I realize that it’s a stretch but without explicitly indicating a need for a different approach, the default methods associated to “improving crop varieties” is monocroping GMO varietals. I personally fall somewhere within the neutral spectrum on the GMO debate, however, I see monocropping as a method that propagates wastes, environmental degradation and food system instability. The default state for nature is diversity and when you manipulate an ecosystem to only produce one plant variety then you create a very leveraged environment. This leverage can be translated as instability. The following excerpt from the Harvard School of Public Health sums this idea up nicely:

 

“However, these plants [monocultures] are selected because of their ability to grow well under the specific conditions of a particular place, and therefore are at greater risk when these conditions change, for instance in extreme weather, than are genetically diverse stands. Genetically diverse crops can better survive in environments in which conditions fluctuate, because some are vulnerable to certain changes and other are not. Thus genetic diversity is likely to reduce the odds of massive crop failure and to contribute to greater stability of production. The vulnerability of monocultures to disease and insects also illustrates this point. Pathogens spread more readily, and epidemics tend to be more severe, when the host plants (or animals) are more genetically uniform and crowded. The pathogens encounter less resistance to spreading than they do in mixed stands. Outbreaks of disease, invasions of insects, and climatic anomalies have caused many wholesale crop and animal failures in the past.” – (Source)

 

If our objective is to focus on improving food stability in the face of climate change, then we should not only reduce our environmental impact but also create a more resilient food system. Experts and UN agencies are advocating for a shift from a global industrial agriculture model to small agro-ecological farms within a local framework. Everyone is concerned about producing enough food for the 9 billion people, however, we’re actually producing too much food. A 2004 study from the University of Arizona claims that we waste nearly 50% of our food at that occurs at every stage (processing facilities, warehouses, grocery stores, cafeterias, restaurants and homes) – (Source). Beyond the glaring distribution issues this brings up, it’s also another huge contributor to greenhouse gases as the food waste decomposes and releases nitrogen. By moving to a localized small agro-ecological farms approach, it will help improve a myriad of factors that tie back into the food security matrix, but most importantly, it would providenmuch more resilient crops that could better withstand climate events.

 

“The successes of small agro-ecological farms are well known (see [3]). Study after study has documented improvements in yield and income as well as environmental benefits from eliminating agricultural input and polluting runoffs, increase in agricultural and natural biodiversity, reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and most of all, improvements in water retention, carbon sequestration and resilience to climate extremes such as drought and floods. There is evidence of improved nutritional value in organically grown food, not just from reduction or elimination of pesticide residues, but from increased content of vitamins and micronutrients [13]”. – (Source)

 

Possible Implementation of This Logic

As we not only look to better coordinate between all the actors involved with food security and climate change, we should also very carefully approach the capacity building side of things to make sure we are teaching methods that not only decrease our environmental impact, but also improve the resiliency of our crops.

 

An example of how you could build off this logic would be to monitor and provide guidance on whether farmers had enough biodiversity on their farms. You could build off of the early warning and guidance systems described in the Exemplar and integrate biodiversity metrics and guidance. For instance, if the climate service predicted extreme weather in the coming months, it could recommend greater biodiversity, and particular crop combinations, to optimize resiliency and yield in that context.

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