New Program Aims to Mitigate Climate Threats to Food Security

A new multimillion dollar research program by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research aims to alleviate climate-related threats to the food security, livelihoods and environment of people living in the developing world. One of the key intellectual forces behind this initiative has been the International Research Institute for Climate and Society’s Jim Hansen. He’ll be leading efforts within the program to look at how managing current climate risks will help farming communities adapt to longer term climate change.

The CGIAR– a network of agricultural research centers that supports thousands of scientists in more than 100 countries- considers climate change an “immediate and unprecedented threat” to the food security of hundreds of millions of people who depend on small-scale agriculture and natural resource management. To address this threat, it has created a ten-year Challenge Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) [pronounced SEE-cafs] to explore new ways of helping vulnerable communities adjust to global changes in climate as they relate to food security. The program’s annual budget is expected to ramp up to $25 million by its fifth year.

Hansen, an expert on climate risk management for agriculture, sees the new program as a way to foster collaboration between people concerned with climate change adaptation and those concerned with development.

“Climate-related risk is a major contributor to poverty and food insecurity, and an impediment to agricultural development efforts, particularly in rain-fed farming systems in the dryer tropics,” he says. “Well-designed, well-targeted research, in the context of an international development strategy, can have a huge impact.” And with CCAFS, he will have an opportunity to shape a program of high-impact research.

He is leading a research theme called Adaptation pathways based on managing current climate risk (see accompanying box), one of six themes under CCAFS. Three of the themes seek to understand the ways in which climate change threatens food security; the other three, including Hansen’s, will try to develop ways to address these threats.

The theme leaders come from a number of influential global centers of research, such as the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

“CCAFS is about tackling two of the major global problems humanity faces at the moment,” says the program’s director, Bruce Campbell. “One is food security and the other is climate change.” This involves bringing together two very different communities of researchers under a common set of goals, Campbell says.

“The climate science community has tended to focus on what’s going to happen in 2050 or 2100, but with respect to food security issues, that [time scale] is almost useless,” he says. “We really have to focus on the near term, and that’s why IRI was part of the equation in terms of putting CCAFS together. It’s one of the few places where there’s a focus on near-term prediction.”

Hansen’s high-level role within CCAFS represents a milestone for IRI, says Walter Baethgen, who runs IRI’s Latin America and Caribbean program. “In the agriculture world, the Consultative Group is the actor, and having the IRI engaged at this level is a dream come true. Our science now has the potential to inform millions of people,” says Baethgen, who also served on the CGIAR’s Science Council created to provide guidance to the group’s overall strategy.

Hansen expects to build on the kind of research IRI has already undertaken. “For example, we’ve worked for years to connect climate information services and products to rural communities in places such as India, Kenya and Zambia.” he says. “We’ve learned much about the challenges to using information to manage agriculture better, as well as the opportunities to overcome those challenges.”

This new role for Hansen builds on a 14-year career that has focused on issues important to the rural poor. During his first year in college, he developed a passion for trying to reduce suffering from poverty and hunger in rural areas. This continues to be the underlying motivation for his work.

As do many in his field, Hansen points to Norman Borlaug as a key source of inspiration. Borlaug, who died last September, is known as the “father” of the Green Revolution.

“He was a superhero in our profession, attributed with saving more lives than any other individual in history. People credit him with saving a billion lives by catalyzing the Green Revolution, which tripled global food production in a period when the planet’s population roughly doubled,” he says. The CGIAR was a significant driver of the Green Revolution.

While the Green Revolution had a huge impact in the irrigated areas of Latin America and Asia, Hansen points out that it has been less effective in the more marginal, rainfed areas, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia. “I think this is where the exciting targets are for intervention now. A lot of people see food security, especially in Africa and elsewhere in the tropics as the challenge of climate change in the coming decades.”

To this end, the CCAFS program will target three regions for initial research South Asia’s Indo-Gangetic Plains, Eastern Africa and Western Africa but the aim is to find solutions that go beyond specific locations. “The strategy is to address knowledge gaps and to develop international public goods that can be implemented and applied elsewhere in world,” Hansen says.