food security

Inequality, Agriculture and Climate Change:

From a Vicious to a Virtuous Circle

A transformation is urgently needed in the world’s food system to make it more resilient to climate change and to reduce its emissions.

By Elwyn Grainger-Jones
World’s food system needs transformation to make it resilient to climate change.
A new urgency

is being felt on climate change. Schoolchildren are striking, there are protests in the streets, and politicians across the world, including the UK, are pushing to call climate change a national emergency.

A cruel irony is that climate change will not be felt equally by all—those who have contributed the least to rising temperatures are set to suffer the most.

The world’s poorest economies are largely dependent on agriculture—which not only provides employment for millions of the rural poor, but produces the food required for rapidly growing populations. Climate change is however projected to have stark impacts on crop yields in these regions. The majority of areas growing the staple crop maize in Africa are predicted to suffer yield reductions between 12-40 per cent, while millet and sorghum yields are predicted to decline between 10 and 15 per cent respectively.

A transformation is urgently needed in the world’s food system to make it more resilient to climate change and to reduce its emissions. For that, rapid innovation is essential.

Smallholder farmers are on the frontline of climate change. There are estimated to be over 500 million of them, who still produce the majority of food in the world. Helping them cope with climate change—such as rising temperatures and increased floods and droughts—will not only safeguard food supplies but also reduce the greenhouse gases associated with food systems—estimated at around one third of global emissions.

With just over a decade remaining to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the lowest-income countries are not on track. In 2017, in 34 countries, nearly 95 million people faced crisis levels of acute food insecurity or worse affected by climate shocks and extremes.

Every organization must act with urgency. Here are four recent examples from CGIAR’s body of research work across the globe:

Breeding climate-resilient crops
Our planet is heading for temperatures that won’t allow us to grow the food we need. We need to breed new crops that will survive.

400 million people rely on beans for nutrition, yet climate change is threatening to reduce their growing area by up to 50 per cent by 2050. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture has been working on finding “heat-beating” genes that can be bred into bean varieties in areas vulnerable to rising temperatures in Africa and Latin America. Over 1,000 varieties of beans have been studied, revealing 30 bean types that have heat- and drought-resistant traits. Work is now underway to bring heat-resistant beans to farmers.

Increased bean productivity won’t only result in increased food supplies and incomes for farmers. By keeping agricultural lands productive in the face of climate change, we can prevent more land being brought under production – which accounts for almost half of agriculture’s carbon footprint as forests are cleared.

“Ecologically-sound farm management” blends irrigation techniques with the use of crop varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases, and the introduction beneficial species.

Managing pests and disease
With rising temperatures come rising threats from harmful pests and diseases.

While the application of pesticide will be necessary in some cases, our research is looking into ways this can be kept to a minimum, to protect farmers’ profits (to ensure they don’t overspend on expensive inputs) but also to protect the planet.

“Ecologically-sound farm management” blends irrigation techniques with the use of crop varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases, and the introduction beneficial species.

For instance, a Lynx spider can eat two to three harmful leaf folders per day; damselflies and dragonflies prey on leafhoppers, stem borers, and leaf folders; and ground beetles prey on planthopper nymphs. These species can easily be attracted onto farms through ecological engineering. This involves planting flowers and fostering biodiversity on farms that will attract beneficial species that prey on pests. Biopesticides such as Beauvaria and Metarhizium and bacteria such as Bacillus thuringiensis can also control various kinds of pests.

Protecting against floods
In some regions, heat and pests will not be the most significant climate threat – flooding will. The International Water Management Institute is therefore trialling several options to keep farmers’ yields and profits safe from the storms.

An innovative insurance model being developed in India, named “index-based flood insurance” uses satellite data to enable quick insurance pay-outs to flood-affected farmers. The pay-outs are based on scientific data indicating the actual depth and duration of flood waters in the paddy fields. This is a major improvement on traditional insurance products that rely on surveys of damage post-flood; farmers that are hit require urgent support so as not to fall further into poverty and hunger.

If the solutions proposed by the project are scaled up, by 2025, approximately 1 million farmers will have agricultural fl¬ood insurance, delivering INR 10 billion in fl¬ood protection.

Low emissions technology
Other agricultural research programs have direct and tangible impacts on greenhouse gas emission reductions.

In the Philippines, for example, over 100,000 farmers are practicing alternate wetting and drying to grow irrigated rice, with support from the International Rice Research Institute. This technique, which relies on rice crops being irrigated intermittently, rather than constantly, uses 15-30 per cent less water while maintaining yields. As the period that the soil is under anaerobic conditions is greatly reduced, methane emissions related to rice cultivation are reduced by up to 50 per cent.

For each dollar invested in projects such as these, as much as $17 dollars is returned.

Investment in climate change is a global imperative. Investment in agricultural research can make those investments work that much harder, delivering adaptation, mitigation and prosperity for the developing world—a virtuous circle.

The G20 has an opportunity to take decisive action—CGIAR will be a partner at this unique moment in history.

About the author
ELWYN GRAINGER-JONES is the Executive Director of CGIAR System Organization. Previously he held positions at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Bank. An economist by training, he played a leading role in establishing the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds and IFAD’s Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Program.