Few scientists now doubt the existence of the enhanced greenhouse effect and the fact that human activities affect climate is also rarely disputed. As the consequences on food security and the distribution of these effects around the globe are studied, scientists at Wageningen UR are using their knowledge to develop climate-smart food systems capable of withstanding the most likely climate changes.
The intense social debate about climate change pays little heed to the actual scientific basis. Partly due to the ‘disclaimers’ in the societal debate, scientists are unable to ensure that the high degree of consensus that exists within the scientific world, plays a dominant role in the political decision-making process. The result is that international measures to mitigate the human production of greenhouse gasses are unlikely to be taken soon. The climatic consequences will soon become clear, especially in countries where the infrastructure and food supply is insufficiently prepared.
A smart strategy for farmers is to adapt to a future with more extreme weather conditions, but these conditions remain uncertain. To build a clearer picture and translate the climate developments into local practice, Rik Leemans, professor of environmental systems analysis and his group are developing various models and scenarios in which global models are linked to specific local conditions such as hydrology, existing agricultural practices, consumption patterns, social structures, local markets, infrastructure and government policy.
The interaction between weather extremes and agricultural systems is the main topic of these model studies. Higher temperatures and more CO2 in the atmosphere appear to have a positive effect on the growth possibilities and, therefore, potential agricultural yields. But what are the effects of other stress factors caused by climate change? It is interesting to see how existing agricultural systems respond to extreme conditions. Remarkably, research by Wageningen UR has shown that in an extremely warm and dry year (2003) the negative effect is greater on large-scale, high-tech agricultural regions in Northern France and the Netherlands than on the small-scale and varied Italian landscape. This is not in line with the theory that northern countries could benefit from global warming, while countries closer to the equator would experience mostly negative consequences. It seems that the way agriculture is organised has a substantial impact on its resilience.
Wageningen UR is involved in two major, globally coordinated research programmes into adapted agriculture and food systems: Future Earth, a ten-year programme by the International Council for Science, and Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. CCAFS has programmes in Vietnam, the Hindu Kush region (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives), East and West Africa, and South America. The core of the programme is to acquire local knowledge and achieve concrete improvements by taking specific actions in agricultural practice that will make them more resilient now. This practical knowledge is widely shared to develop new insights and innovative changes that can be made more widely applicable at a later time. An added benefit is that food security and agriculture are now included on the global and climate agenda.
Adaptability is essential
It is important that the vulnerability of the local food systems is recognised. Integrated research into water and carbon (CO2) management, food production and public health are being performed to build a clear picture of this vulnerability and the influential factors. In this approach food security is a connecting theme. Assuming that climate change will result in more extreme conditions, adaptability is essential to maintain food security. In areas that are expected to experience considerable drought, the system must be made more resistant using crops that require less water [LINK 220.127.116.11. adaptation suboptimal conditions]. Vice versa, we can develop systems that can cope with a higher risk of precipitation, flooding or saline penetration in the soil.
Although the CCAFS programme is still new, the first experiments have already been set up. In BurkinaFaso and Mali the scientists will visit the villages to experiment with cultivation that is expected to correspond with the local climate. On the often dry and nutrient-deficient fields they will plant millet seed in small holes mixed with animal compost, combined with small trees that can fixate nitrogen from the air. This should result in fields with growth potential, roots that retain more water and shade, making them less vulnerable to drought and heat. To assess whether this
local approach can lead to an attractive system that could make Sub-Sahara Africa and other regions more resilient, the scientists will analyse the global results within the CCAFS programme to see how they correspond with the developed climate models.
There may not be any standard solutions, but regions can learn from one another. For example, Vietnam, with its specific delta problems (high precipitation, infiltrations, saline penetration) and a food system with fish farms and rice cultivation in flooded fields, requires different solutions than Burkina Faso or the Hindu Kush region. The shared factor is the local approach, and in many countries it has resulted in considerable enthusiasm among locals.
With regard to the scientific aspects, combining the regional studies with climate-change scenarios
provides insight into the possibilities of a food system approach. The approach enhances the understanding of the interactions between food security, environmental stress and other local factors. In turn, this provides a clearer insight into the decision- making processes and policy options. Eventually the research is intended to form a basis for local food and agriculture policies that can withstand the various conditions that may result from climate change."