Climate change and food security: The world is watching

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The European Union and its member states must act to provide its scientists with the tools they need to ensure and enhance food security at a time of massive global changes. This needs to happen today – not tomorrow – as the world is watching, writes Evan O’Connell.

Evan O’Connell is communication officer for the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and for Analysis and Experimentation on Ecosystems (AnaEE), an FP7/ESFRI Research Infrastructure.

“The whole world is watching”. That was the cry of anti-war demonstrators in Chicago in 1968, imploring their leaders to act. Today, Europe’s leaders are at the same crossroads when it comes to climate change and food security. The Commission, national governments and policy-makers across the continent know all too well that they must act – and that their failure to do so could be fatal. Yet too many EU Member States still do not support vital research infrastructures like AnaEE (Analysis and Experimentation on Ecosystems) that provide the experimental tools, data, predictive models and mitigation and management strategies that will help us respond to climate change in a sustainable way, with a proper understanding of the impact of our actions on food production, health and biodiversity.

Climate change has already had a sizeable impact on crop growth and yields, as well as natural ecosystems. Coupled with continued population growth that will bring the world’s population to 9.6 billion people by 2050, as well as improvements in living standards in many emerging countries, this means that we must do far more to ensure we find and maintain that delicate balance between feeding the planet and reducing our environmental impact thereupon. The future is uncertain – and we do not currently have all the tools and models we need to anticipate what these changes will mean for food production and supply, as well as biodiversity and natural ecosystems.

Many believed until recently, despite climate change and increasing global population, that we had several decades of surplus ahead of us. However, it is clear that pressures on the food supply are growing. The sustainability of agricultural, forested and freshwater ecosystems is under threat due to climate change, loss of biodiversity, land use changes, and disturbance of biogeochemical cycles.

The problem is so acute that it is estimated that a third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming. (1) This particularly impacts the poorest regions of the world. Regions such as Southern Europe are particularly at risk of water shortages. (2) More extreme variations in temperature and precipitation are playing havoc with agricultural production and growth trends of yields of major crops – especially wheat – have declined over the past two decades. (3)

But the answer is not merely intensification. Land use change resulting from expansion of agricultural land is one of the main contributors to the growth of CO2 emissions (4) while also putting an ever greater strain on the water supply. Add to that the impact of the increasing frequency of extreme climatic events, like the summer heat wave of 2003 which led to €36 billion of economic losses for the agriculture sector in the EU and to large carbon losses from ecosystems, and it is clear that we need to find smarter and more sustainable ways to produce more food with fewer resources. This includes a complete understanding of the impact of the inputs used in farming and the impact of the outputs of human activity, such as pesticides, herbicides, NPK fertilisers, run-off and the like.

Our understanding of how precisely climatic changes and the impact of human activity affect ecosystems is still incomplete, however. That is why we must do more to support research initiatives in the area of agriculture, food and climate that will allow us to test and validate models showing how fluctuations in temperature, CO2, soil acidity, nutrients and other factors affect food production, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

International research programmes like the CGIAR research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) have been initiated to address such questions for the developing world. Within Europe, 21 EU Member States came together in 2010 to launch the Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE-JPI), which aims to foster collaboration among national agencies and ministries to work toward alignment of research programming at the intersection of the areas of agriculture, food security and climate change.

However, while Europe’s research community knows that at a time of financial uncertainty it must try to do more with less, the sophisticated research infrastructures that will provide answers to these burning questions must be adequately funded and supported. One key example of this is AnaEE (Analysis and Experimentation on Ecosystems) – currently bringing together 13 research bodies from 10 countries.

Launched in November 2012, AnaEE aims to provide Europe’s researchers in agriculture and environmental science with a distributed, integrated network of platforms and central hubs that will help them find experimental solutions to key global challenges.

Aiming both to bring Europe’s scientists together under one roof and foster cooperation with other parts of the world, AnaEE has already built cooperation with similar networks in the USA (NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network) and Australia (TERN, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network), with a Memorandum of Understanding in process. As AnaEE realises that it cannot respond to climate change alone, it is also building links with existing European research infrastructures such as ICOS (carbon observation) and LifeWatch (e-infrastructure for biodiversity), including common sites and tools.

Yet while AnaEE has received initial funding for its preparatory phase, as well as funding from a handful of national governments, much more needs to be done: while support from governments like France, Italy, Belgium and the UK is strong, most others have yet to invest in this vital research infrastructure that will allow Europe’s scientists to conduct high-tech experiments that will provide real solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

We also believe that private sector companies big and small, from sectors including food and drink, mining, paper and steel, as well as the pesticide and fertiliser industries who have a vested interest in understanding the impact of their products, have a role to play in helping scientists develop the kind of environmental management and mitigation strategies – as well as impact assessment – that will help them be more sustainable in future.

Europe must act to provide its scientists with the tools they need to ensure and enhance food security at a time of massive global changes. This needs to happen today – not tomorrow. We cannot afford to wait. The whole world is watching.

(1) Nkonya E, Gerber N, Baumgartner P et al. (2011) The Economics of Land Degradation Toward an Integrated Global Assessment. Development Economics and Policy. Volume 66, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien.

(2) Fereres E, Orgaz F, Gonzalez-Dugo V (2011) Reflections on food security under water scarcity. Journal of Experimental Botany, 62, 4079–4086.

(3) Olesen JE, Trnka M, Kersebaum KC et al. (2011) Impacts and adaptation of European crop production systems to climate change. European Journal of Agronomym, 34, 96–112.

(4) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007) Climate change: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. In: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, van der Linden PJ, Hanson CE), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York.

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