Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Sonja Vermeulen, the Head of Research at the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research’s (CGIAR) program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS). CCAFS is a research institution that brings together the world’s best researchers to address the most important interactions between climate change and agriculture. Speaking with us from London, Vermeulen gave us a look at the work CCAFS is doing to address climate change and improve food security through agriculture. She also highlighted a couple of exciting developments to come in 2014 and gave us her prediction for the next great challenge to food security.
FT: Could you explain what your role is at CCAFS?
As the Head of Research I have a coordination role. I also work particularly on trying to make the links and the exchange between science and policy, so our science and then the decisions of policy-makers either in government or implementing agencies, or in the private sector.
We are not an advocacy agency and try to remain a neutral science agency. Of course we are not entirely value free. We work on behalf of the rural poor in subtropical countries in particular.
FT: What is the most exciting work being done in this field? Are there any new advances in technology or brand new research findings that will mean something big for this field?
We did not launch our Big Facts site to be connected with an event or anything else—we specifically didn’t do that. We want it to be a resource and for the facts to stand alone, outside of any ongoing process. So that’s our context. On the other hand, there is a lot going on.
In April, we will see a new International Panel on Climate Change (ICCP) report for the first time since 2007. This new assessment will tell us how climate change is making an impact. We anticipate that this report is going to be making a much stronger statement about the risks of climate change for food security than we saw in the 2007 report. We think there will be a lot of serious attention paid to it, and farmers, governments, and companies all over the world will be thinking about what they need to do differently. It is a big year for action!
Also, the United Nations is holding a climate summit in September. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will likely announce the launch of a new climate smart agriculture alliance. This brings together NGOs, interest groups, governments, and big development agencies around the shared problem of what we need to do with agriculture.
FT: One of the research topics at CCAFS is called low emissions agriculture and is focused on improving agriculture in low-income countries without increasing emissions and the threat to climate change. Accomplishing this would be a win-win situation. Can you talk about these interventions? Has this been a challenge?
It’s mixed. There are some opportunities where an adaptation action will also bring a lot of benefits for mitigation. Our principle is we can’t give poor farmers an unaffordable burden for mitigation. Especially from a justice perspective, farmers are not part of the original problem; they’re more the victims of it.
Improving the management of soil and improving the organic content in soil increases fertility and results in immediate yield increases and improved water holding capacity, which then gives you an adaptation advantage. One of the biggest effects of climate change for farmers is very unpredictable rainfall, so water-holding capacity is a big adaptation advantage. The soil storing carbons also provide a mitigation advantage. But, it is important to recognize that there are some things that are more divergent, indeed. For example, a brilliant mitigation example would be to plant a huge area of farmland with forest. That causes a problem from a food security point of view.
FT: The soil management example sounds relatively easy to implement, and not controversial. Is that the case?
Yes and no. Certainly those improvements in soils are highly possible, many of the technologies are simple. There can also be barriers. One of the best ways to improve the organic content of soils in poor rural, low resource areas is to transfer animal manure into those soils and to retain residues and dig them back into the soil. That results in huge increases in productivity. But the problem is farmers may want to burn manure as fuel, or feed the crop residues on their land to cattle or other livestock. So, there are competing uses even for fairly low-value resources.
FT: Improving global food security is a major focus of CCAFS. What is the biggest challenge to achieving global food security? In the United States and in many other countries, genetically modified foods are causing much debate. Does CCAFS consider genetically modified foods to be a valid solution for achieving global food security?
We are a science organization, so we remain neutral on the value of all kinds of modern breeding techniques. Essentially, we do believe that technology in future will be part of the solution, but that often too much emphasis is placed on methods to increase crop productivity. Right now we’re growing far more than we actually need to give everybody in the world 3,000 calories a day.
There are other things that are important in achieving food security. We have problems in our food system. Rich people are getting an excess of calories while poor people are getting too little, so we have trade and distribution issues going on. We also know now that we waste a third of food that is produced, which never reaches the mouths of people. So we have these other major issues for achieving food security, which really don’t need high tech ways of improving crop production. We need to tackle all of these together.
FT: As we move into a future that is more urban, more technologically equipped, and more populated, what are researchers predicting will be the next great challenge for sustainable agriculture and food security?
Diseases from animals and plants that can be transmitted to humans is an area we are perhaps not giving enough attention to. Due to climate change, temperatures are higher, and it is in high temperatures that most diseases thrive. New diseases are appearing in vegetables at an alarming rate; a rate so fast they cannot keep up with tracking, naming, or classifying them. The bird flu is a great example of this problem. We need new and efficient ways of dealing with new plant and animal diseases so they don’t have widespread food security impacts.
FT: What would you recommend for readers who would like to learn more?
CCAFS is a global network that is heavily multi-partnered. Our focus is on smallholder farming systems and the food security of the poor all around the world. All the research products CCAFS comes out with are free and open access. I welcome anyone to use these resources and to utilize our many contacts.
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