The IPCC focus on agricultural productivity as already under stress re-emphasizes what many of us have been saying about the need to incorporate adaptation and sustainability into agricultural development. This scientific and evidence-based report supports the observations of U.S. farmers who are planting their corn weeks earlier than in past years in order to take advantage of the cool Midwestern evenings needed for productivity and farmers in developing nations who are facing weather volatility.
The links between climate change and agriculture are not new, nor are policy prescriptions. Previous reports (Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2004), Senate Foreign Relations Committee (2008) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2009)) noted the links between climate change and agricultural productivity. In fact, the Chicago Council on Global Affair’s 2014 report will be almost exclusively about the effects of climate change on agriculture.
What we at TLC call the 2050 Challenge is not just about population growth that is estimated to top 9 billion people. It’s about how population growth interacts with natural, political, economic, and societal variables in ways that will put incredible stress on the planet’s and mankind’s ability to ensure food security for everyone. Climate change will affect the access and availability to resources, particularly water and land. Rural to urban migration will result in fewer farmers including the smallholders we think are critical to future food security. The demand for more protein rich diets of wealthier populations will require much higher farm yields of feed crops. All these factors conspire to prevent us from eliminating chronic hunger.
Clearly, we need to learn how to produce more food with fewer inputs on roughly the same amount of land, what some call sustainable intensification. This will require ongoing investments, public and private, in science and technology.
Interestingly, there is an unfortunate partisan dynamic to the debate on climate change and science. Climate change deniers tend to be on the right side of the political spectrum. Genetic engineering opponents tend to be on the left. But genetic engineering can help with climate change adaptation by saving water with drought tolerance features and requiring lower levels of pesticides to prevent harvest losses and thereby increase productivity. It is difficult to understand how either side can embrace science on one issue but ignore it on the other. As Senator Lugar said in a 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with former Vice President Al Gore,
"Genetically modified crops have the potential to improve agriculture production in the poorest regions of the world and help poor farmers contend with increased drought, new pests, and other consequences of climate change…Opposition to safe GM technology contributes to hunger in Africa in the short run and virtually ensures that these poor countries will lack the tools in the long run to adapt their agriculture to changing climatic conditions that could create chaos."
We need to better understand where and when technologies, both genetically engineered and conventional, are appropriate and how they can be adapted for use by those who choose to use them. Perhaps in some environments and for some crops, conventional growing techniques are the way to go. In others, genetic engineering may be the best way to meet the demand for globally traded commodities. Farmers should be free to choose what makes sense for their situations based on the best evidence available.
This again requires investments in research and the application of science-based knowledge with regard to both climate change and agriculture.
Connie Veillette is a Senior Fellow in global food security and aid effectiveness at The Lugar Center.