The relationship between climate change and agriculture is complicated. Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, and in turn, climate change impacts agriculture.
Agriculture uses one third of the world’s land mass. It is critical to our survival. But agriculture also has a serious impact on our environment. It contributes to biodiversity loss, unsustainable water usage and water pollution. It also produces a third of global greenhouse gas emissions that contributes to climate change, impacting crop productivity and threatening global food security. Most predictive models analyzing impacts of future scenarios of changing temperature and precipitation project yield losses of 10-25% by the end of the century, although some project losses of as much as 100%.
The challenge in food security is finding ways we can feed the hungry today and those of tomorrow, without destroying the environment. All while dealing with climate change. It’s a delicate balancing act. We need agriculture that can produce sufficient nutritious food, at affordable prices, with low environmental footprint, and provide sufficient livelihoods to farmers. Ultimately, agriculture needs to satisfy the goals of the producer, the consumer, and the environment.
Climate-smart agriculture is a term being used, perhaps too loosely, to describe a systemic approach for developing agricultural strategies geared to help secure sustainable food security under climate change. It has three objectives—increase agricultural productivity; reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation); and build resilience to climate change (adaptation). The objectives of climate smart agriculture are clear, but achieving all three objectives may prove to be difficult.
My sense is there will be tradeoffs. The goal of increasing productivity seems inherently opposed to the goals of mitigation and adaptation to climate change. In other words, we can have a farming system that emits fewer greenhouse gases helping to stabilize climate, and is resilient to climate shocks, but it will not be simultaneously productive. Alternatively, we could have a system that is highly productive, but it will likely be harmful to climate and not resilient to extreme weather events. And climate change is not the only environmental issue as previously pointed out – maybe we could achieve the objectives of climate smart agriculture, but will run out of water. We’ll need to exercise caution. Scientists are still assessing the evidence. At this point it’s too early to know what impact climate smart practices may be having, if there are any impacts at all.
Even as we learn more, it would be prudent to continually step back and think about what does or doesn’t work and why. It would be scientifically useful to identify farming systems and farming practices that best balance any tradeoffs. To do this, we need to take a broader approach, employing scientific research across many disciplines to understand which systems and practices will produce the highest and most stable yields at the least cost to climate and environment.
For example, genomics is one of the tools we have available in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The traditional approach to selective breeding takes a lot of time. Long before genomics, farmers would save the seeds from plants that had traits that they liked and therefore those traits would be passed on. And plant science has helped speed up this selection process. Genomics can help us cut that short further, enabling rapid development of plants more resilient to climate change. But genomics is only one of the scientific approaches we must consider. And we always need to consider how the technology is applied in a broader context.
When we think about how to develop climate resilient farming systems, we must not work in siloes in pursuit of solutions. We must take an interdisciplinary approach to research. By bringing together agronomists, biotechnologists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, nutritionists, social scientists and so on, we can look at the challenges holistically and in context. And we need more engagement between scientists doing the research, and the wider community of stakeholders, including, importantly, the farmers producing the food, and the consumers eating the food. Then we can have a broader understanding of tradeoffs to design systems with a socially acceptable balance in mind. Then perhaps we will have adoptable solutions based on a scientific understanding of the most effective approaches to sustainable farming.