September 24, 2014

Guest Commentary - Food Security for a Warming World: It’s All In The Science

By Frank Rijsberman

What does climate change have to do with the food on our tables? Just ask farmers in Nicaragua who have lost 2,500 cattle in the worst drought since 1976. Or the dairy and livestock producers in California set to make $203 million loss this year as the state enters its third year of drought.

It is clear that climate change already has a palpable impact on our food supply. Following UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit on September 23, I urge global leaders to recognize the profound difference that investing in agricultural research is already making to those most vulnerable to climate change – the millions of farmers on its front line.

CGIAR scientists, from our dedicated Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, are leading the charge uncovering “climate-smart” innovations that will help these farmers continue to put food on all of our tables. Climate-smart agriculture helps farmers to not only meet targets for production whilst adapting to the challenges that climate change poses, but it also helps farmers lower their own carbon footprint, to minimize future impacts on the environment. This can mean combining indigenous and scientific knowledge to provide 2 million farmers in Senegal with weather forecasts via community radio, so they have a better handle on rainfall patterns. Or, it can mean working with private insurance companies in India to provide a pay out to farmers when rainfall drops below a certain threshold during a growing season.

As temperatures creep up, vital water resources become more and more scarce. As agriculture accounts for around 70% of water use, innovations to save water on the farm will be crucial. In the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, dry seasons are becoming longer, there are more dry spells during rainy seasons and the problem of saline water intruding into fields is getting worse. These trends mean that there is less water available for irrigation than before. Thanks to work spearheaded by the International Rice Research Institute over a thousand rice farmers in the region are successfully using the water-saving technique known as alternate wetting and drying (AWD). This entails farmers monitoring water levels above and below the soil surface and only irrigating when they fall below certain point. As a result, they were able to cut the frequency of irrigation by two-thirds compared to farmers not practicing AWD. They also used 30% less water, and needed to apply less fertilizer and insecticide. Altogether, they made substantial cost savings while at the same time obtaining higher yields.

The rural poor need not only worry about their food supplies, but also their fragile livelihoods that can be destroyed in an instant when extreme weather hits. Research carried out by the Center for International Forestry Research has discovered ways that communities in Indonesia are using forests to protect their homes. Local policies are springing up that ban tree cutting along rivers, so that forests can absorb water deluges. In other communities, profits from wood sales are being put towards repair work after floods have hit.

We heard the UN Secretary-General’s call for bold commitments to catalyse climate action. CGIAR scientists will gather in New York on September 25 for our first-ever “Development Dialogues” to showcase the many concrete solutions for climate action our scientists have been working to uncover. We come to New York with the commitment to dedicated at least 60% of our funding to climate-smart agriculture. We pledge to reach half a billion farmers with climate-smart technologies.

CGIAR is just as ambitious as the UN Secretary-General. We believe we can end hunger and poverty in our lifetimes, and we can do it whilst protecting our planet. It’s just all in the science. 

Frank Rijsberman is Chief Executive Officer of CGIAR Consortium.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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