Food security can’t wait and neither can decisive action on climate change

Fred Snijders
27 November 2015

Food security can’t wait and neither can decisive action on climate change

FAO reported in its publication “State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015” last June that the number of hungry people has dropped to 12.9%. This is certainly good news, but at the same time, the absolute numbers are still staggering; 795 million people are still hungry today and if climate action isn’t achieved this number will increase.

Undernourishment is one of the indicators to quantify food security; a concept that has many dimensions. It includes food availability, production, access to food, utilization and, very importantly, stability. Climate change and its associated impacts are likely to affect all dimensions of food security in various degrees, further complicating vulnerable situations all around the globe.

12 July 2005, Guatemala - Market scene.

Guatemala – Market scene. @FAO

We at FAO have been working on supporting countries to face the impacts of climate change for years. Our work is to help countries achieve food security even under the uncertainties of climate change. Because the agricultural sectors (smallholder crop production, livestock, forests and fisheries) are particularly exposed to the variability of climate, we need to help in making them resilient. There are many ways to achieve resilient and productive food systems.

Among the various pathways available, FAO proposes a Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) approach to help guide actions to transform and reorient agricultural systems to effectively and sustainably support development and food security under a changing climate.

It is based on three pillars: (1) Increase, in a sustainable manner, productivity and income growth in agriculture; (2) Support adaptation across the agricultural sectors to expected climatic changes and build resilience; and (3) Reduce, where possible, the greenhouse gas emission intensity of production systems.

The world population is still increasing, even though the annual rate of growth is slowing down. As there are more mouths to feed, the quantities and diversities of people’s diets are changing. Global per capita food consumption is projected to increase from around 2700kcal/day to more than 3000kcal/day by 2050. The world is consuming more and more animal products. Global fish production has been also on the rise for the last 50 years; with aquaculture providing the bulk of the increase in the last 20 years.

The amount of arable land in use per person has been gradually decreasing; globally it was reduced by half from the 1960’s to now. Despite these conditions, agriculture was able to produce more and more, how was that possible? The answer is the dramatic and steady increase in yields that has been achieved, starting with the so called green revolution. But it is also clear that there are limits to what can be achieved, the annual growth rates of, for instance, world cereal production and yields are steadily decreasing. This increase has come at a price. Many of the agricultural practices have put more and more pressure on the natural resources and ecosystem services. We are slowly reaching a point of no return. We are faced with the need to grow more with less and in a sustainable fashion. This realization formed the basis of the first pillar of CSA: the need to increase productivity, but sustainably!

In addition to these developments, we introduce yet another variable, climate change. Projected changes affect the growing conditions of crops, livestock, fish, trees as well as ecosystem services, and thereby the livelihood of people, often the poorest. This illustrates the importance of the second pillar of CSA: support adaptation across the agricultural sectors to expected climatic changes and build resilience. Adaptation is critical to secure future food security. There are many examples on how better practices and better policies can help farmers, foresters and fisher folks adapt. Agroforestry, crop diversification, conservation agriculture, improved management techniques, weather services, and availability of salt- or drought tolerant crop varieties are just a few of them.

In many occasions such practices come with substantial benefits including reduction of emissions which brings us to the third pillar of CSA: reduce, where possible, the greenhouse gas emission intensity of production systems.

There are ample opportunities to reduce the emission intensity of agricultural systems, without reducing productivity. At times it could be even increased. Key action points to achieve this increase are to up resource use efficiency and improved management. This will result in a combined reduction of emission intensity with productivity increase.

But introducing better, more climate-smart production system does not happen automatically. Farmers, fisher’s folks and foresters need support! This includes knowledge of alternative or improved production systems and management options; local support institutions or mechanisms (extension services, cooperatives, etc.); availability of more resilient varieties (need for research and development); access to resources, both for men and women: inputs, land, financing/investment; and an enabling policy environment.

To bring about positive change, there is a need to create an enabling environment. For this to happen, four important principles are required:

  • Turn political will into implementation/policies, investments, legal frameworks.
  • Sharpen the focus of policies and programmes for climate change on food security.
  • Increase the base of evidence for policy-making.
  • Involve all stakeholders in decision-making.

Food security can’t wait and neither can decisive action on climate change.