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Climate change and food: What are the priorities for action?

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Climate change is a threat to food security. There will be 9 billion people to feed in 2050. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food production will need to increase by 70 % over the next 35 years to feed our planet. What are the strategies and policies that could help solve this problem?
 
Alobal food demand is projected to increase by at least 60% in 2050 over 2006 levels. Without adaptation to climate change, it will not be possible to achieve food security for all and eradicate hunger, malnutrition and poverty because population increases will be concentrated in regions with the highest levels of malnutrition and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.
 

Impacts and consequences of climate change on agriculture

 
The impacts of climate change include more extreme and frequent weather events, heat waves, droughts and rising sea levels. These impacts are already having an alarming effect on agriculture and implications for food security. In tropical developing regions, the livelihoods and food security of vulnerable households and communities are already being affected.
 
An increase in these impacts would make it almost impossible for agricultural sectors to adapt adequately in many places and would lead to drastic drops in productivity. Climate change will also put pressure on fisheries and aquaculture - which supply at least 50% of animal protein to millions of people in low-income countries. Among the most vulnerable are regions that are already highly food insecure and whose poorest people, both urban and rural, are subject to higher and more volatile food prices, especially small producers. This would be particularly serious in sub-Saharan Africa, partly because its population is more dependent on agriculture.
 

To what extent does agriculture contribute to greenhouse gas emissions?

 
Agriculture accounts for at least 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in land use, such as the conversion of forests to pasture or cropland, and soil degradation, such as that caused by overgrazing, induce losses of organic matter above and in the soil, which increases CO2 emissions.
 
Livestock and crop production also result in emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, two other powerful greenhouse gases.
Other emissions from the food system as a whole are generated by the manufacture of agrochemicals (e.g. fertilizers) and by the use of fossil energy in agricultural practices, crop and product transportation, processing and retailing.
 

What are the challenges and main priorities identified by FAO for a more sustainable agriculture in the context of climate change?

 
FAO has identified four main challenges to a more sustainable and resilient "climate-smart agriculture" (CIA) approach:
- diversification and better integration of food production systems into the complexity of ecological processes ;
- higher transaction prices in order to overcome precarious production and reduced resources, especially for rural women, which should improve their access to adequate advice and counselling;
- developing social protection programmes ;
- reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
 

What are the priority actions and policies to be implemented?

 
The priority is a reorientation of agricultural and rural development policies that updates incentives and lowers barriers to transforming food and agricultural systems. 
More precisely via :
- a combination of adaptations through sustainable intensification and diversification of agricultural production, including the creation of off-farm opportunities, both locally and by strengthening links between urban and rural communities. Such diversification would improve the resilience of farmers, thereby reducing the impact of climate shocks on their incomes;
- much greater access to technology, credit, smart investments and information for small farms in developing countries - about 475 million. This is in order to adjust their production systems and practices to climate change, making rural livelihoods more resilient.
- Reducing food losses and waste, increasing resource use efficiency and rebalancing diets towards less meaty foods will also make an important contribution in this direction, with likely benefits also for human health; 
- well-designed social protection instruments that provide predictability and regularity and are consistent with other forms of climate risk management, to enable households to better manage climate risks and engage in more profitable livelihoods and agricultural activities that guarantee them a minimum income or access to food;
- disaster risk reduction, which should also be integrated into broader strategies rather than simply responding to extreme events. Special attention should be paid to the development of heat and drought tolerant plant varieties, not only for tropical countries, but also for temperate countries with already higher temperatures during their growing seasons. 
To this end, international cooperation and multi-stakeholder partnerships and alliances are essential as climate change will bring new nuisances and diseases and will also increase the risks of their cross-border migration.
 

What is FAO's specific role in support of agriculture in the face of climate change?

 
To assist its members, FAO is helping to reorient food and agriculture systems in the countries most exposed to climate risks, with a clear focus on supporting small farmers. It operates in all its areas of expertise, pursuing new models of sustainable and inclusive agriculture.
 

What are the main obstacles to action and how can they be overcome?

 
The lack of coordination and alignment of agricultural development plans and actions that address climate and other environmental issues is one of the main obstacles. This leads to the inefficient use of resources and prevents the integrated management that is needed to address climate change threats, particularly for smallholders who face a wide range of obstacles and barriers on the road to more sustainable agriculture. These include limited access to markets, credit, advice, weather information, risk management tools and social protection.
 
Gender issues also need to be addressed. Women, who account for about 43 % of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, are particularly disadvantaged, with fewer entitlements and rights than men. Their agricultural workloads are also increasingly heavy due to male emigration. The policy framework for action needs to be radically changed, and this should lead to an understanding of the factors influencing productivity and the degree of conservation or depletion of natural resources and thus their impact on farmers' livelihoods and on the environment in general. 
 
Systemic constraints currently prevent developing countries in their ability to access and effectively use sources of "climate finance" for agriculture. Addressing this "capacity gap" in policy making and institutional development should therefore be a priority for donors and countries alike, so that "climate finance" - if countries increase this finance as planned - can play its transformative role for food and agriculture.
 
As long as these necessary investments for small farmers remain inaccessible, the serious consequences in terms of loss of livelihoods and increased food insecurity will remain.
Source: Report of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): "State of Food and Agriculture" 2016″
 
Jacques de Gerlache(Eco)toxicologist, Director of Greenfacts
 

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