Should food security be a priority for the EU?

By David Leclère, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

August was the warmest ever recorded globally, as was every single month since October 2015. It will not take long for these records to become the norm, and this will tremendously challenge food provision for everyone on the planet. Each additional Celsius degree in global mean temperature will reduce wheat yield by about 5%. While we struggle to take action for limiting global warming by the end of the century to 2°C above preindustrial levels, business as usual scenarios come closer to +5 °C.

However, we lack good and actionable knowledge on this perfect storm in the making. Despite the heat, world wheat production should hit a new record high in 2016, but EU production is expected to be 10% lower than last year. In France, this drop should be around 25-30% and one has to go back to 1983 to find yields equally low. Explanations indeed now point to weather as a large contributor. But underlying mechanisms were  poorly anticipated by forecasts and are poorly addressed in climate change impacts research.

©Paul Townsend via Flickr

©Paul Townsend via Flickr

Second, many blind spots remain. For example, livestock has a tremendous share in the carbon footprint of agriculture, but also a high nutritional and cultural value. Yet, livestock were not even mentioned once in the summary for policymakers of the last IPCC report dedicated to impacts and adaptation. Heat stress reduces animal production, and increases greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product. In addition, a lower share of animal products in our diet could dramatically reduce pollution and food insecurity. However, we don’t understand well consumers’ preferences in that respect, and how they can be translated in actionable policies.

How can we generate adequate knowledge in time while climate is changing? To be able to forecast yields and prevent dramatic price swings like the 2008 food crisis? To avoid bad surprises due to large missing knowledge, like the livestock question?

In short: it will take far more research to answer these questions—and that means a major increase in funding.

I recently presented two studies by our team at a scientific conference in Germany, which was organized by a European network of agricultural research scientists (MACSUR). One was a literature review on how to estimate the consequences of heat stress on livestock at a global scale. The other one presented scenarios on future food security in Europe, generated in a way that delivers useful knowledge for stakeholders. The MACSUR network was funded as a knowledge hub to foster interactions between research institutes of European countries. In many countries, the funding covered travels and workshops, not new research. Of course, nowadays researchers have to compete for funding to do actual research.

So let’s play the game. The MACSUR network is now aiming at a ‘Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship’, the biggest type of EU funding: 1 billion Euros over 10 years for hundreds of researchers. Recent examples include the Human Brain Project, the Graphene Flagship, and the Quantum Technology Flagship. We are trying to get one on modeling food security under climate change.

© Sacha Drouart

© Sacha Drouart

Such a project could leapfrog our ability to deal with climate change, a major societal challenge Europe is confronted with (one of the two requirements for FET Flagship funding).  The other requirement gave us a hard time at first sight: generating technological innovation, growth and jobs in Europe -but one just needs the right lens. First, agriculture already sustains about 44 million jobs in the EU and this will increase if we are serious about reducing the carbon content of our economy. Second, data now flows at an unprecedented speed (aka, big data). Think about the amount of data acquired with Pokemon Go, and imagine we would harness such concept for science through crowdsourcing and citizen-based science. With such data, agricultural forecasts would perform much better. Similarly, light drones and connected devices will likely open a new era for farm management. Third, we need models that translate big data into knowledge, and not only for the agricultural sector. Similarly, models can also be powerful tools to confront views and could trigger large social innovation.

To get this funding, we need support from a lot of people. The Graphene project claimed support from than 3500 actors, from citizens to industrial players in Europe. We have until end of November to reach 3500 votes, at least. If you think EU should give food security under climate change the same importance as improving the understanding of the human brain, or developing quantum computers, we need you. This will simply never happen without you! Please help us out with two simple actions:

  • Go the proposal, and vote for/comment it (see instructions, please highlight the potential for concrete innovations)!
  • Spread the word – share this post with your friends, your family, and your colleagues!

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The future of social change

By Anne Goujon, IIASA World Population Program and Vienna Institute of Demography

How will societies develop in the future? And what environmental, economic, and social factors will influence these changes? Can these problems be analyzed in a scientific way? And if so, what tools should we use? On 13 June, I took part in a workshop for a project aimed at answering these questions.

This was the second workshop organized by the Forward Looking Analysis of Grand Societal Challenges and Innovative Policies (FLAGSHIP) project, supported by the European Commission under FP7 and aiming at developing new policies to help solve major social problems.

The workshop took place in Nanterre, France.

The workshop took place in Nanterre, France. Photo Credit: Bladsurb via Flickr

I participated in a round table where we discussed how to find tools for forward-looking analysis and how to develop and integrate them to analyze societal change. This implies the integration of different models (economic, territorial, environmental), which can be very challenging. It can be difficult to avoid overlaps between models, and also to account for possible feedback effects between different factors. We discussed how to choose between two overlapping outputs such as two different GDP projections produced by environmental and economic models. Shall we try to validate the models historically by checking which model is best able to reconstruct the past? A nice idea, but most researchers agreed it would be too time and data-intensive to be practical. Another alternative, much less rigorous but easier to implement, would be to compare the results of the two models and decide which one is the best among the FLAGSHIP team. But according to which criteria? The last alternative would be to decide upfront which model should provide which outcome. It is almost a philosophical decision to be made as none is right or wrong.

Innovation seems to be at the core of all models for the future of Europe, encapsulating more than Information and Communication Technologies and Research and Development, but also incorporating other components such organizational capital – the share of a firm at management level. At the moment, FLAGSHIP is envisaging two storylines for the future—namely socio-ecological transition and global growth—which are actually not very far from some of the Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP) scenarios developed by IIASA and others for the 5th assessment of the IPCC . Another IIASA researcher, Samir K.C. presented these scenarios at the meeting as an invited expert.

In a 2011 Science article, IIASA researchers Wolfgang Lutz and Samir KC showed the importance of population heterogeneity, specifically related to age, sex, and level of education, whenever population is an important driver of change. At the workshop, KC talked about the steps involved in the process of developing global demographic and human capital scenarios for the SSPs, with an emphasis on the importance of dialogue, discussion, and interactive iteration between the demographers and the user community in shaping the quality of the product. He recommended more consultation between the demographers and other experts in the FLAGSHIP project to produce consistent and meaningful demographic narratives. He also argued that existing scenarios such as SSPs should be explored and might be useful with some alterations.

Since the project looks at the next 50 years, rather short-term from a demographic point of view, population will possibly enter the whole model with just one scenario.

More information
FLAGSHIP Project 2nd Workshop
EU FLAGSHIP Project Web site