Nature and Biodiversity

How can we adapt farming to climate change?

Sean de Cleene
Member of the Executive Committee, Head of the Future of Food, World Economic Forum
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According to UN projections, the world’s population could reach 9.15 billion by 2050, creating a 60% increase in demand for food. At the same time, the IPCC predicts that global warming will reduce agricultural yield by 2% per decade, which would no doubt lead to farmland expansion. This would have a knock-on effect on already saturated supplies of freshwater. In fact, research from the Water Resources Group suggests that by 2030, there could be a 40% gap between demand and supply of freshwater. The environmental consequences would be severe, and would almost certainly be felt most acutely by the world’s most vulnerable populations.

As the World Bank points out, to avoid this situation and ensure we achieve zero hunger and malnutrition in our lifetime, we are clearly going to have to learn to feed more people, with less land and in more sustainable ways. Doing so means finding solutions that consider the complex relationship between climate change, agriculture, food security, energy and water, as well as their often competing priorities.

One way of doing this is through climate-smart agriculture. As a strategy, it aims to transform the global food system and achieve three goals: near-term productivity and food security; longer-term resilience and adaptation; and reductions in emissions across landscapes, agriculture and food systems.

Climate-smart agriculture is a break from the past, where all too often the short-term goal of increasing food productivity has been at the expense of long-term food security. It recognizes the unsustainability of our current approach: the agricultural sector is responsible for more than one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, so the more we expand agricultural production in its current form, the more we compromise our ability to achieve long-term food security.

Tanzania is an example of a country looking to put in place climate-smart agricultural practices. Its population is set to grow from today’s 45 million to 138 million by 2050. The maize demand alone is expected to grow by 16 million tons. It must either quadruple maize yields, or maize cropland must expand by a massive 9 million hectares, itself a cause of deforestation. To tackle this problem and ensure its agricultural expansion is sustainable, Tanzania is working to develop inclusive multistakeholder growth models.

But to achieve universal food security – where all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life – agricultural growth must be more than just climate smart. It must also address challenges related to landscape, resources, nutrition, knowledge transfer and gender.

Making such changes in agriculture will take an unprecedented level of cooperation. These cross-cutting and often competing agendas will require that different sectors work together, putting aside their differences. We need collaboration and strong leadership to make these changes happen.

The 100 governments, organizations and companies that committed to joining the newly formed Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture are taking a step in the right direction. It won’t be easy. But the signs all suggest that we will succeed in eliminating hunger in our lifetime.

Author: Sean de Cleene, Senior Vice-President, Yara

Image: Ethiopian farmers Mandefro Tesfaye (L) and Tayto Mesfin collect wheat in their field in Abay, north of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Barry Malone

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