Strengthening the resilience of our global food system while advancing its transformation

By Frank Sperling, Senior Project Manager in the Integrated Biosphere Futures Research Group of the IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

Frank Sperling shares his reflections on issues around sustainable and transformational food production in the context of the UN Food Systems Summit.

© Solarseven | Dreamstime.com

Bringing together stakeholders from around the globe, the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) calls attention to the opportunities, challenges, and promises that the transformation of our food systems can hold to advance sustainable development.

This transformation needs to happen, while the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic reminds us of the manifold vulnerabilities embedded in our food systems, the inter-dependence of our societies, and the entanglement of human and natural systems. The increases in weather and climate extremes that can clearly be attributed to climate change, ongoing biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and pollution further illustrate that food systems need to manage a broad range of compounding risks and pressures that play out over different spatial and temporal scales. Advancing and securing gains towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not only require meeting multiple economic, social, and environmental objectives, but also demand pathways that ensure a safe navigation through a treacherous and shifting risk landscape. But how do we build resilience into the food system while transforming it at the same time?

Great strides have been made in technologies and practices that can help food systems manage existing and emerging risks. For example, on the production side, timely access to seasonal forecasts and early warning information coupled with extension services can help farmers to make the right decisions for planting and to anticipate, adapt, and cope with possible shocks. Precision agriculture, which harnesses advances in technology to ensure optimal health and productivity of crops and soils, can reduce the need for inputs. Diversification of livestock and agricultural traits can help farmers to reduce production risks in marginal environmental conditions.

Minimizing the spillover risk of zoonotic diseases, mitigating, and adapting to climatic and environmental changes place additional demands on food systems, but also offer new opportunities. Living sustainably requires comprehensively managing land use, enabling for food production, but maintaining and recovering critical ecosystem goods and services, such as carbon and biodiversity. It requires advancing nature-based solutions, where nature is seen as an ally and not an adversary in delivering on development objectives. Strengthening natural capital accounting and incentivizing environmental stewardship by rewarding actors in the food system for efficient and sustainable management of natural resources, and appropriately informing consumer choices will be important ingredients in reducing the environmental impact as well as environmental vulnerabilities of food systems.

The transformation of the food system is an ongoing process. It is therefore important to understand the impact of different changes across the system. Shifts to healthier diets can have important co-benefits in reducing pressure on the environment and natural resources. Such transformation implies, however, that shifts in demand are also matched by shifts in supply, reflecting appropriate adjustments of agricultural production. To accommodate such system shifts and facilitate system transitions over time, the social resilience and adaptive capacity of society must be addressed accordingly.

Food systems operate at different scales, ranging from local to global. Consequently, the role of trade in ensuring food security and human welfare across a range of contexts is critical. Several countries are already dependent on food imports. Trade can help the food security of regions where agricultural activities become less viable with progressive climate change. At the same time, the changing exposure to socioeconomic and environmental risks arising from the increasing inter-connectivity of societies and economies also need to be addressed, as illustrated by the current pandemic. The evolution of food systems has been largely shaped by a drive for efficiency. We must now consider carefully where efficiency needs to be (counter)balanced with an effort to promote greater diversity, and where we must build in greater redundancy to help manage the variety of risks facing food systems.

Forward-looking approaches aimed at transforming food systems towards greater resilience and sustainability will require a suite of measures within, as well as outside food systems. Such measures entail helping livelihoods and sectors to reduce their vulnerabilities and risk exposure, while also enabling the agility of food systems to manage future risks, avoiding lock-in of structures, which would become mal-adaptive over time. Achieving such transformation will depend on increased collaboration and trust building across sectors, enabling innovation in technologies and practice, strengthening of training and capacity development, and on the improvement of safety nets for reducing vulnerabilities to shocks and managing the social transition. Above and beyond, it requires re-calibrating the connection of food systems with other sectors and systems, such as health, environment, energy, and infrastructure.

The UNFSS in conjunction with the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (UNFCCC COP26), and the UN Conference on Biological Diversity in Kunming (CBD COP15), are a formidable call to action for political leaders, decision makers in the public and private sectors, scientists, development practitioners, civil society, and to society at large, to come together and jointly imagine and build resilient and sustainable food systems that place people and nature at the center before it is too late.

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

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.

From pasture to plate: can beef be produced sustainably?

By Shorouk Elkobros, 2020 IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Being mindful of biodiversity loss and environmental impact can disrupt the beef industry globally, here’s how.

In his new polemical Netflix documentary, A life on our planet, Sir David Attenborough argues that, “We live on a finely tuned life support machine, one that relies on its biodiversity to run smoothly.”

The decline in biodiversity challenges the world’s capacity to produce food for a growing population. That is ironic when global food production itself is a contributing factor to biodiversity loss, especially beef production.

What’s wrong with the beef industry?

Here are a couple of the current challenges facing the beef industry: Cows are major culprits in climate change because they emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Beef production is the number one driver of deforestation and habitat loss in tropical forests. Grazing cattle also require a large amount of grass that requires using harsh nitrogen fertilizers. Hence, the beef production industry contributes heavily to biodiversity loss, which has dire consequences for the planet.

©Jonathan Casey | Dreamstime.com

There is no silver bullet to solve the challenges beef production poses to the environment. Research is going above and beyond to find diverse and integrated solutions that can go hand in hand to combat this challenge. Whether through ways to reduce methane emissions, such as creating an anti-burp vaccine for cows, designing lab-grown meat, or shifting diets to plant-based alternatives.

Katie Lee, an alumna of the 2020 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and PhD student at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, is part of a broader project that focuses on redistributing where we produce beef to minimize its impact on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity, as well as on the cost of production.

“I am particularly interested in ways to enhance the types of beef production systems. With the challenges of its water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and the large areas of land it requires compared to any other food source, any small changes we propose can have a big impact,” she explains.

For Lee, solutions to global food security are crucial, and looking at the status of production systems is both a need and a must. The world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. So, when thinking about ways to feed 10 Billion people by 2050, it becomes clear that it is not enough to simply look at beef alternatives without enhancing its current demand and supply chains. Lee thinks it is more efficient to pragmatically alter and improve the environmental impact of beef production than to convince people to stop eating beef.

It is understood that reducing beef consumption has health benefits. However, with a growing interest in alternative meat options, the question remains of which markets this appeals to, and how environmentally friendly and energy- and water intensive these alternatives are.

“While demand reduction on meat is important, sometimes it is not feasible in countries that do not have economic security or are still growing in terms of affluence, which leads to an increase in beef consumption. That is why we need to look at the producer side and the consumer side, as well as everything in between to have the biggest impact. I was particularly interested to conduct this research in cooperation with IIASA, mainly because the institute has a good history of looking at the impact of beef, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Lee.

A win-win all-round solution

Using the IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM), Lee is assessing the impact on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity when shifting both the production and demand of beef. Preliminary results from her ongoing study show a reduction in impact on biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a reduction of the producer price when switching away from extensive grazing systems  ̶  a win-win situation all-round.

“Few studies explicitly address biodiversity loss compared to investigating ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I want to show stakeholders that beef production can be more efficient in terms of reducing its impact on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity. I am hopeful that this study can help beef producers to be mindful of this when making choices. That will be a win for the environment if it goes together with a proactive reduction of meat consumption,” concludes Lee.

Similar to Lee’s study and using a set of large-scale economic models including GLOBIOM, the IIASA AnimalChange research project aims to assess the global scale adaptation and mitigation options of the livestock sector to ensure a sustainable livestock production sector by 2050.

Limiting global warming and protecting biodiversity should be a priority when designing food systems able to feed an increasing population. As a food producer, whether you raise cattle or design cell cultured meat, it is important to be conscious about livestock hoof prints on biodiversity. As a food consumer, it is necessary to be mindful of having a healthy and sustainable diet that does not put the planet in jeopardy. Sustainable beef production might not be the panacea to future biodiversity loss or food scarcity, yet it can offer a significant change.

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.

Global hunger and trade under global warming

By Charlotte Janssens, guest researcher in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program and researcher at the University of Leuven and Petr Havlík, Acting Ecosystems Services and Management Program Director.

Charlotte Janssens and Petr Havlik write about their recent study in which they found that world trade can relieve regional impacts of climate change on food production and provide a way to reduce the risk of hunger.

© Alisali | Dreamstime.com

In a warmer world, decreasing crop yields and rising food prices are expected to strongly jeopardize the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 – ending global hunger. Climate change has consequences for food production worldwide, but there are clear differences between regions. Sufficient food is expected to remain available in the Northern hemisphere, while in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, falling crop yields may lead to higher food prices and a sharp rise in hunger.

In our recent publication in Nature Climate Change, we find that world trade can relieve these regional differences and provide a way to reduce hunger risks under climate change. For example, if regions like Europe and Latin America where wheat and corn thrive increase their production and export food to regions under heavy pressure from the warming of the Earth, food shortages can be reduced.

Global Hunger by 2050

The State of Food and Nutrition Security in the World 2020 reports that globally almost 690 million people were at risk of hunger in 2019. Many factors determine how global hunger will develop in the future, including population growth and economic development, as demonstrated in a study in Environmental Research Letters. Our article uses the “middle-of-the-road” socioeconomic pathway where population reaches 9.2 billion, income grows according to historical trends, and the number of undernourished people decreases to 122 million by 2050. Within this socioeconomic setting, we investigate the impact of different climate change scenarios and trade policies on global hunger by 2050.

The worst-case climate scenario of a 4°C warming leads to an extra 55 million people enduring hunger – a 45% increase compared to the situation without climate change. In a protectionist trade environment where vulnerable regions cannot increase their food imports as a response to climate impacts, this effect rises to 73 million. The largest hunger risks are located in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, with respectively a 33 million and 15 million increase in people at risk of hunger in the worst-case climate scenario.

Where barriers to trade are eliminated, “only” 20 million people endure food shortages due to climate change. While this number is high, it is a vast improvement on the 73 million people that would potentially be exposed to hunger without the suggested measures. In the milder climate change scenarios, an intensive liberalization of trade may prevent even more people from enduring hunger owing to global warming. Yet a liberalization of international trade may also involve potential dangers. If Asian countries increase rice exports without making more imports of other products possible, they could well end up with a food shortage within their own borders.

Mobilizing Investment

Our study shows not only that the challenge of ending global hunger is strongly determined by the extent of progress on SDG 13 (climate action), but also that achievement of SDG 2 (zero hunger) is affected by developments articulated in SDG 9 (resilient infrastructure). We find that international trade can relieve regional food shortages and reduce hunger, particularly where trade barriers are eliminated. Such trade integration requires phasing out import tariffs as well as the facilitation of trade through investment in transport infrastructure and technology. Especially in low-income regions such as sub-Saharan Africa infrastructure is weak. In its 2018 African Economic Outlook, the African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that between USD 130 billion and 170 billion a year is needed to bridge the infrastructure gap in the region by 2025. Given that infrastructure finance averaged only USD 75 billion in recent years, and the largest contribution is coming from budget-constrained national governments, alternative financing through institutional and private investments could be crucial in the face of climate change.

Crisis and Protectionism

In times of crisis, countries are inclined to adopt a protectionist stance. For example, in the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, several countries have temporarily closed their borders for the export of important food crops (see IFPRI Food Trade Policy Tracker for updated information). Some commentators warn that such measures can have large detrimental effects on food security. Our study finds that also in the context of climate change, a well-thought-out liberalization of trade is needed in order to be able to relieve food shortages properly.

Reference

Janssens C, Havlík P, Krisztin T, Baker J, Frank S, Hasegawa T, Leclère D, Ohrel S, et al. (2020). Global hunger and climate change adaptation through international trade. Nature Climate Change [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16575]

This blog post first appeared on the SDG Knowledge Hub website. Read the original post here.

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

Crowdsourcing for food security

By Myroslava Lesiv, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program.

The public can contribute considerably to science by filling the gaps of missing information in many research areas, for example, monitoring land use, biodiversity, or forest degradation. Crowdsourcing campaigns organized by research institutions bring together citizens interested in science and help solving research questions to the benefit of the whole world.

This June, the IIASA Geo-Wiki team ran the Global Field Size campaign, encouraging citizen scientists to classify field sizes on satellite images. Its aim was to develop a global field sizes dataset, which will be used as input to create an improved global cropland field size map for agricultural monitoring and food security assessments. The field sizes dataset can also help us determine what types of satellite data are needed for agricultural monitoring in different parts of the world.

Geo-Wiki interface for collecting field size data. Background layer: Google Maps.

Why are field sizes so important? They provide us with valuable information to tackle challenges of food security. A recent study showed that more than a half the food calories produced globally comes from smallholder farmers, who often make up the most vulnerable parts of population, living in poverty. Within this scope, the field size dataset fills the gaps of missing information, especially for countries that have a limited food supply and lack a well-developed agricultural monitoring system.

The Global Field Size campaign has been one of the most successful crowdsourcing campaigns run through the Geo-Wiki engagement platform. Within one month, 130 participants completed 390,000 tasks – that is, they classified the field sizes in 130,000 locations around the globe!

So we can see that crowdsourcing is powerful, but can we trust the data? Is it accurate enough to be used in different applications? I think it is! The Geo-Wiki team has significant experience in running crowdsourcing campaigns; one of the key lessons we have learned from previous Geo-Wiki campaigns is the importance of training the public to increase the quality of the crowdsourced data.

This campaign was designed so that the participants learned over time how to delineate fields in different regions of the world, and, at the same time, pay special attention to the quality of their submissions. At the end of the campaign, the majority of participants gave us a feedback that, to them, this campaign was indeed a learning exercise. From our end, I have to add, this was also a challenging campaign, as fields are so diverse in shape, continuity of coverage, crop type, irrigation, etc.

Global distribution of dominant field sizes. Cartography by Myroslava Lesiv. Country boundaries: GAUL. Software: ArcMap 10.1.

During the campaign, the crowd was asked to identify whether there were fields in a certain location, and determine the relevant field sizes by the visual interpretation of very high-resolution Google and Bing imagery. A “field” was defined as an agricultural area that included annual or perennial croplands, fallow, shifting cultivation, pastures or hayfields. The collected data can also be used to identify areas falsely mapped as cropland.

Now the team is focused on summarizing the results of the campaign, processing the collected field size data, and preparing them for scientific publication. We will ensure that the published dataset is of high quality and can be used by others with confidence!

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.

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.