State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Food Security in the Face of Changing Climate

Then Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 900 million people in the world were chronically hungry between 2010 and 2012. The organization is also warning we could face a global food crisis in 2013 because of historically low grain reserves and rising food prices.

Add to this the ever-present challenge of trying to increase both production of and access to food on a planet with increasingly more people on it and whose climate is changing, and you have raison d’être of the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security research program (CCAFS).

The program is run by the CGIAR, a network of 15 international agricultural research institutes and a driving force behind major advances in food security and poverty reductions in Asia and Latin America in the latter third of the twentieth century. Think Green Revolution.

CCAFS is the world’s largest research program focused specifically on climate change and food security. It works across the developing world, but currently emphasizes sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

James Hansen, an agricultural scientist at the Earth Institute’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, also happens to be one of the key research leaders within CCAFS. Below, he discusses his role and the issues that most interest him in the Q&A and video below.

What is your role within CCAFS?

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security is organized around four themes: Adaptation Through Progressive Climate Change, Pro-Poor Climate Change Mitigation, Integration for Decision Making and the theme that I lead, which is called Adaptation through Managing Climate Risk.

What is the focus of your theme?

We try to enable promising innovations for managing climate-related agricultural risk at local and regional levels. We also support improvements to climate-related information products and services that enable a range of agricultural risk management interventions. The theme targets the many short term, climate-sensitive decisions that farmers, humanitarian response organizations and others have to make on a routine basis and that can influence their long term vulnerability to climate.

You’ve also been a research scientist at IRI for 12 years. Did the work you were doing here evolve naturally into the mission and goals of CCAFS?

We recognized for a long time that the best way for IRI to have an impact on food security and rural livelihoods was to partner with the CGIAR, which has enormous reach and influence on these matters. At the IRI, we believe any approach to adapting agriculture to climate change must address the system’s vulnerability to current climate variability–events such as droughts, floods and extreme weather events. We were successful in convincing the agricultural research community to accept that argument, and ultimately the CCAFS program was formulated to take into account both longer term climate change and these shorter term fluctuations in climate.

What do see as being the key challenges to tackle?

If we’re going to adapt agriculture to a changing climate–no matter the time scale–people will need to have access to relevant and timely climate information. Right now, this is a significant constraint. Within the theme I lead, I see a particular opportunity to connect global efforts to strengthen climate services with the agricultural research community in a way that will give farmers and other agricultural decision makers a voice in the design and evaluation of the information that they receive. It can’t just be handed down from the climate or meteorological communities. Feedback from end users is critically important.

We’re also working to strengthen connections to the humanitarian community that deals with food crises. Typically, when the impact of an extreme event, such as a drought or flood, on food production reaches a certain threshold, a set of institutions and interventions is mobilized. Too often, these humanitarian interventions are disconnected with mainstream agricultural planning.

Can you give an example of this disconnect?

In Ethiopia, ten times as much overseas development assistance is devoted to responding to food crises as is invested in the long-term development to reduce vulnerability to those food crises. I believe this cycle of increasing vulnerability and dependency on emergency relief can be overcome through a combination of better management of climate related risk by rural communities, better coordination between agricultural development and food security response, and earlier intervention when climate information indicates a likely shortfall in agricultural production.


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