Food security is in jeopardy

Food security is in jeopardy
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There is growing consensus that the two issues that will define the lives of future generations are climate change and food security. At this week’s United Nations Climate Summit 2014: Catalyzing Action, world leaders will address both of these challenges and the solutions necessary to minimize their impact on the globe. 

The two are increasingly more intertwined and more pressing with each passing year. Climate change has long led to tension-filled debates focused on the “who” and the “why,” distracting us from the problem itself and the solutions necessary to address it.

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But new studies and reports, highlighting the effect of climate change on food and nutrition security in the coming decades, are driving a different, less politicized dialogue around this important issue — a step that is critical to embracing the innovation necessary to mitigate its impact.

In a sense, while most of us were not looking, we created the perfect storm — no pun intended. How else do you explain having to feed more than 9 billion people by the middle of the century, while our increasingly volatile weather threatens the food and agriculture that we must rely on to accomplish that goal? 

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, major disruption to agriculture as a result of climate change has increased dramatically over the past four decades and is expected to only get worse over the next 25 years. The consequences will affect everyone on the planet. We don’t have to look far for proof. We have already seen the recent effects of extreme weather conditions that are taking their toll on agricultural productivity and the livelihood of farmers, not only in the United States, but in many parts of the world.

In 2012, the Midwest experienced its worst drought since the 1950s. It affected more than 50 percent of the country and left more than a third of corn yields in poor or very poor condition. This has far-reaching consequences. Roughly 75 percent of the food in our grocery stores contains corn, from yogurt to soda and virtually all dairy products. A dramatic reduction in corn production, therefore, has implications for much of the food we consume long after it leaves the farm.

As the world’s second biggest exporter of food and agriculture, crop losses at home mean less supply reaching global food markets. For countries unable to meet their domestic needs, global food shortages can mean the difference between smallholder farmers’ ability to feed their families and suffering from chronic hunger. In the past, reductions in global food supply have also led to political unrest and food riots over unaffordable prices. 

Consider the more direct impact of climate change on already food- and nutrition-insecure countries. African countries are reliant on rain-fed agriculture, making them particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures and drought conditions. With droughts taking as much as half of corn harvests, the 300 million smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who rely on corn production are still unable to shift from subsistence to surplus and improve their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, more frequent flooding in countries throughout Asia is having a devastating effect on crop yields. While a third of the world’s population and half of the world’s malnourished live in South and Southeast Asia, without new innovations in agriculture, climate change is predicted to reduce productivity by as much as half over the next three decades. And increased temperatures and different weather patterns are leading to pest outbreaks, jeopardizing the crop industry in the region. These outcomes are troubling — without new approaches, they will inevitably lead to ripple effects around the world.

It is time to think seriously about how to reduce the effects of storms, droughts, extreme temperatures and flooding on our agriculture and food system. Science-based solutions from drought-tolerant crops to crops that can withstand floodwaters will constitute one of many tools needed to enable farmers to adapt to our new normal. With the help of drought-tolerant corn, for example, yields can increase by as much as 15 percent as compared to nondrought-tolerant corn. This will be critical to curbing unnecessary crop losses as farms become more vulnerable to hot and dry conditions.

But, there are other solutions as well, including new agriculture practices. Climate-smart agriculture (CSA), a term coined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is aimed at sustainable agriculture development to address food security in the face of climate change. A CSA project in Kenya and Tanzania for 2,500 smallholder farmers led to a number of CSA practices, including energy-efficient cooking stoves to reduce deforestation, tree nurseries, terraces built to conserve soil and water, and biogas digesters to produce renewable energy from cow manure. The FAO is working to build the knowledge base around these practices to facilitate adoption and scaling up.

It will take all of these tools, including utilizing best agronomic practices, increasing access to data and technology, and improving seed capacity to adapt to our changing climate. 

The president said it well last summer during a commencement speech at the University of California, when he said future generations have been “shortchanged by inaction” with respect to climate change. I agree. We can no longer afford to let ideological debates stand in the way of sound science. The cost of doing so is far too high, not only in environmental terms, but for how we feed the generations to come. 

Daschle served in the Senate from 1987 to 2005. He currently chairs the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation & Productivity, is a senior policy adviser at DLA Piper LLP (U.S.) and a co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center.