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OPINION: Today’s climate and food crises can only be solved in tandem

by Claudia Sadoff | CGIAR
Monday, 8 February 2021 09:55 GMT

A house is seen in a field of dry corn, in La Palmilla, Guatemala October 9, 2020. Picture taken October 9, 2020. REUTERS/Josue Decavele

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Extreme weather driven by climate change, conflict, and the COVID-19 pandemic are driving worsening hunger. What can change that?

Claudia Sadoff, Executive Management Team Convener and Managing Director, Research Delivery and Impact at CGIAR System Organization


Our climate is so closely connected to our food systems that even if fossil fuels were eliminated today, emissions from farming mean global temperatures would likely still increase by at least 1.5C.

Yet at the same time, more than 150 million people currently face acute hunger in a growing food crisis compounded by extreme weather, conflict, and the Covid-19 pandemic, apparently pitting the needs of the population against the limits of the planet.

We cannot slow down climate change without transforming the way we produce, consume and dispose of food and we cannot end global hunger without more sustainable and resilient environmental management. In short, we must find ways to address this dual challenge in tandem.

Only by leveraging the best of climate and agricultural science can the world build back better, stronger and healthier for both people and planet. To do this successfully, science and innovation must be better integrated, connected and funded.

Now more than ever, the world is relying on science to help farmers adapt to rapidly changing conditions and the increased demands they face from society – from healthier, more nutritious food to more sustainable land and water management.

To contend with more frequent droughts and higher temperatures, for example, farmers need access to new crop varieties that can flourish with less water and in hotter climates, traits that are preserved in CGIAR’s publicly-held gene banks around the world.

At the same time, crop scientists need support to develop these varieties more quickly. As climate change accelerates, bringing new and more extreme conditions, farmers are having to adapt more frequently, which makes it increasingly important to safely bring proven solutions and new varieties to market as quickly as possible to maintain resilience.

With greater collaboration and investment, crop and climate scientists can get the right seeds into the hands of farmers, helping them to keep pace with changing environmental conditions and to produce the food the world needs.

Similarly, national and multilateral authorities also rely on science to address global challenges in a more connected way.

Projections show that a 2°C rise in global temperatures could result in as many as an additional 590 million people undernourished globally by 2050 with all the consequences this has for under-development, lost productivity and basic human rights.

With a third of the world’s soils degraded, many areas are seeing declining productivity, diminishing livelihoods and relentless forest-clearing. Science and innovation are needed to develop new ways of maintaining environmental health alongside viable agricultural livelihoods.

Resources like CGIAR’s COVID-19 hub help provide a coordinated, science-based response to such interconnected “One Health” challenges as the role of environmental degradation in the spread of disease, and the impact of animal health on food security.

Finally, with more and better supported science and innovation, the world can move faster to make agriculture part of the climate change solution, rather than one of the contributors.

At CGIAR, we see opportunities to turn agriculture and forest systems into a net sink for carbon by 2050, bringing down emissions from agriculture by 1 Gt per year by 2030 and reaching a floor of 5 Gt per year by 2050.

Climate-smart agriculture, multi-functional landscapes, nature-based solutions, sustainable agricultural intensification, and agroecology all offer potentially significant contributions to this goal, but more research, evidence and action is needed.

The intertwined health, environment and social inclusion challenges of the 21st century create an urgent impetus to sharpen the focus of not just the research by organisations like CGIAR but the ways in which food systems are prioritised by governments and donors.

Over the past five decades, CGIAR’s contributions to crop breeding, agronomic practices, plant and animal health, policy change, nutrition, natural resource management, and climate change have resulted in a 10-fold return on investment.

We have global scientific knowledge and expertise in reserve: now is the time to spend it to build back better.