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Food Security


By Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security, and Pete Smith, Professor of Soils and Global Change University of Aberdeen

  •  February 25, 2014
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Dealing with food insecurity is among the greatest global challenges over the next decades. Food security will be achieved when all people, at all times, have access to safe, sufficient and affordable nutrition. ‘At all times’ includes future generations, requiring solutions to food insecurity to be sustainable in the broadest sense.


  Demand for food is growing rapidly, driven by population and economic growth, and at the same time, climate change – and its mitigation and adaptation – will place growing challenges on global and local food security, as well as other areas of our lives. Both from direct emissions and those associated indirectly with land use conversion, agriculture is a significant contributor to the global greenhouse gas (GHG) balance sheet. So growth in agricultural production has the potential to exacerbate climate change; on the other hand, if managed properly, it has the potential to reduce it. If the former, a vicious cycle can be created: climate change impacts more on production, creating a greater supply-demand imbalance leading to the need for even more production growth.

  The food system is highly complex, containing many feedbacks and connections (Figure 1): agricultural production is just the part providing the raw materials. Recognising the complexities of the food system and its connection to the water-energy-food-land nexus is important to help ensure that proposed adaptation or mitigation measures do not have unintended negative consequences. For example, there is well-recognised land competition between the bioenergy and forestry sectors and the food sector. Too much land given to energy production can potentially lead to both intensification of the agricultural area (i.e. increasing outputs per unit area) and extensification (i.e. increasing the agricultural area from land use conversion), both with the possibility of undermining or reversing the carbon savings created by investment in bioenergy or forestry.

Figure 1. The food system
Figure 1. The food system



  The food system depicted in Figure 1 emphasises that mitigation of carbon emissions can occur throughout the system. Managing the demand for food may be a good thing in terms of reducing land pressure and reducing emissions, as it may also significantly improve global health. Analysis by the World Health Organization indicates that diet-related risk factors (high blood pressure, high blood glucose, high weight, high cholesterol and low fruit and vegetable intake), coupled with a more sedentary lifestyle, are responsible for about one-fifth of all deaths globally, and nearly two-thirds of those associated with the world’s biggest mortality factor, heart disease. Within the UK alone, the costs associated with obesity in 2007 were estimated to be over £15 billion (US$ 24 billion), and they are growing rapidly. It is a truism that obesity arises from taking in more calories than are needed by the body and in terms of resources, the excess food eaten can be thought of as a form of waste. In addition, each year an estimated 1.3 trillion tonnes of food globally are discarded uneaten. Overall, our efficiency is low: through waste and over-consumption, more than a third of global production is wasted.

Why do we waste so much? Some is inevitable; but much can be avoided.

  There is some evidence to show that increasing food production, per se, can lead to over-consumption and waste simply by making food potentially so available that we eat it and waste it at will. Hawkes and colleagues (2012) have shown that significant changes in consumption behaviour can be brought about through changes in the availability and affordability of products, notably by the development of agricultural policy and practice. As the world gets richer, more people want to eat a ‘westernised’ diet. However, this global aspiration may not be attainable, and even if it is, it will not be sustainable. The WWF 2012 Living Planet report suggests that “if everyone lived like an average resident of the USA, a total of four earths would be required to generate humanity’s annual demand on nature.”

  Thus, reducing over-consumption of food and waste will have clear health, as well as environmental, benefits; demand growth, to the degree we are currently experiencing, cannot be sustained indefinitely. Demand-side management, by changing global demand for GHG-intensive diets, needs to be a significant part of the approach to the twin challenges of food security and climate change, along with increasing production and doing it sustainably. Pete Smith and colleagues (Global Change Biology, August 2013) indicate the climate change mitigation potential of managing demand to be potentially as much as four times that from the production side.


  Climate smart agriculture would benefit from tackling both supply-side and demand-side mitigation options together. Smith and colleagues propose that policy should be introduced quickly for both supply-side measures that focus on agricultural production efficiencies, and demand-side mitigation which requires behavioural changes of individuals, recognising that affecting behaviour is one of the most challenging aspects of any large-scale policy shift. Demand-side mitigation measures could co-deliver on several critical global policy agendas in a joined up manner, simultaneously benefiting greenhouse gas mitigation, food security, dietary health, and environmental conservation.

  The notion of climate smart agriculture involves three interlinked concepts:
• Growing production sustainably
• Developing climate resilience and adapting to change, and
• Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

  The extent to which sustainable intensification is attainable, and what in practice it may look like, is very much an open research field at the moment, partly because the concept of sustainability is very difficult to operationalise at the farm level. This difficulty with the notion of sustainability is partly because the same intervention can have different outcomes depending on the context and spatial scale of implementation. In addition, spatial trade-offs exist so that the same outputs can come from smaller areas farmed more intensively or vice versa; which option may be more sustainable at the system level is difficult to assess and is likely to be location-specific. Furthermore, different currencies of sustainability (impacts on water, soils, biodiversity, energy, carbon storage etc) are not easily related and may trade off against each other.

The notion of resilience to climate change encompasses the ability to maintain production in the face of change – both in terms of the climate and its short-term variability: the weather.

  Farmers throughout the world are increasingly adapting as a matter of course: changing planting patterns, cultivars, soil management, farm enterprise mix, investment in technologies (e.g. irrigation and water storage/harvesting) as well as financial levers such as crop insurance. In addition, considerable investment is being made in terms of forecasting and monitoring tools, to give as much early warning as possible to fluctuations in important external drivers such as the weather. As with the notion of sustainability, the appropriate route to resilience is highly dependent on place and technology. There is rather too little primary research worldwide on generic approaches to resilience beyond ensuring cash flow in a bad period (e.g. capital, loans, insurance), on developing forecasting and monitoring early warning systems, and on bet-hedging such as via diversification of farm outputs.


  There is significant scope for GHG mitigation in food production, with a number of production-side measures already being used in many regions of the globe. These include: reducing N2O emissions from agriculture via improved fertiliser and manure management and reducing CH4 emissions by improved management of paddies and livestock; reducing carbon emissions from soil (e.g. no-till; effective drainage to reduce waterlogging, lowering stocking densities on wet soil, protecting peatlands); and increasing carbon sequestration in agricultural soils (through reduced tillage and residue management, green manure, biochar, agro-forestry, hedgerows etc.). The combined mitigation potential of all production side measures is estimated to be 1.5-4.3 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent annually, at carbon prices between US$20 and 100 per tonne. Other forms of emission reduction that are not accounted for in the agriculture sector include increasing efficiency by using less energy in agriculture (e.g. technology and transport, no-till) and converting fertiliser factories and other fossil fuel inputs to agriculture to clean fuels. The annual potential for such mitigation has been estimated to be around 0.8 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent.

There is significant scope for reduction of GHG from agriculture by changing agricultural practices as well as demand.

  Among the supply-side measures that can be applied most easily at present are those that are close to current practice (i.e. no new equipment or expertise is required), making nutrient and fertiliser management, tillage and residue management, grazing land management and changed rotations the most promising options. Those that also enhance productivity (e.g. improved fertiliser management), that improve resilience to climate change (e.g. soil carbon sequestration measures) or that increase profitability (reduced inputs, higher fertility) are more likely to be adopted and implemented. Since almost all the production-side mitigation options available in agriculture also improve efficiency, they are suitable for selection in programmes to encourage climate smart agriculture.


  Significant research effort is currently being expended to bring about better understanding of the options. The Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE-JPI) is an important intergovernmental programme by 21 EU member states and associated countries committed to addressing diverse global challenges ( The mission of FACCE-JPI is to achieve, support and promote integration and alignment of European national resources, and joint implementation of the common research and innovation strategy set out in its Strategic Research Agenda.

  Climate smart agriculture is a key focus of the FACCE-JPI Implementation Phase. Climate change mitigation and adaptation are two of the five core research themes of the FACCE-JPI Strategic Research Agenda. The challenge of reducing GHG emissions requires a global strategic approach and cooperation between national research programmes.

The agricultural sector has many opportunities to contribute to emission reductions and carbon sequestration while still helping meet food security objectives.

  The international call on ‘Climate Change Mitigation’ brings together 12 European countries in FACCE-JPI (Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Finland, France, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and the UK) and Canada, New Zealand and USA, to fund transnational projects that contribute to improving the measurement of GHG emissions and carbon sequestration in soil in different agricultural systems, and to propose and test new practices, strategies and solutions to sustainably increase the carbon sequestration potentials of agricultural soils. The budget for this call is about €5 million (US$6.8 million) in cash plus funding in kind. The call is under way and projects run from the autumn of 2013.

  FACCE-JPI is now launching a transnational call on ‘Climate Smart Agriculture – adaptation of agricultural systems to climate change’ under the ERA-NET Plus action, with the aim to support interdisciplinary research and innovative approaches on the adaptation of European agriculture to incremental climate change and to increased climatic variability. The call is supported by 18 European countries (Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK) and top-up funding from the European Commission, with a total budget of up to €19 million (US$ 26 million), of which €4 million are awarded by the EC. Transnational research projects are expected to provide a research strategy in the context of existing climate change scenarios, and a specification of the time horizon targeted for adaptation. The call, which opened on 1 October 2013, is organised in four themes:
• Genetics and breeding of animals and plants to increase resilience to climate change
• Pests and diseases linked to climate and posing significant risks
• Adaptive management of water and soil resources, and
• Options for adapting agricultural systems.

  In conclusion, there is significant scope for reduction of GHG from agriculture by changing agricultural practices as well as demand. Given the rate of change of the climate, adapting to climate change and increasing resilience to shocks is already happening, and furthermore is the subject of substantial research. As the scale of the challenge is huge, there is considerable urgency to advance this research agenda. The EU’s FASCE-JPI is an exemplar of new initiatives in this area.

This article was originally published on Climate Action 2013-2014 (


  Tim Benton is the ‘Champion’ for the UK’s Global Food Security programme (GFS), leading, facilitating and coordinating its activities. GFS is a partnership of the UK’s main public funders of research in food security. He is also a leading researcher, based at the University of Leeds, working on sustainable agriculture.

  Pete Smith is the Royal Society–Wolfson Professor of Soils and Global Change at the University of Aberdeen, Science Director of the Scottish Climate Change Centre of Expertise (ClimateXChange) and Director of Food Systems for the Scottish Food Security Alliance – Crops. He leads the University of Aberdeen’s multi-disciplinary theme on Environment and Food Security.



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