Chicago Council on Global Affairs identifies “blue skies” research areas to improve global food security

Posted on | July 2, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org.

The recommendations offered by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in its publication, “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate (www.tinyurl.com/mb4pj5s), follow directly from its analysis of the challenges to increased global food production and food security posed by human-caused climate change. Our overview of the Council’s analysis can be found at http://agpolicy.org/articles14.html in columns 723-725.

In this column, we want to focus on a few of the ideas that can be found in the discussion of the four major recommendations. The US government needs to:

  • “Make global food security one of the highest priorities of US economic and foreign development policy;
  • “Bolster research on climate change impacts and solutions, increase funding for data collection, and partner widely;
  • “Include climate change adaptation in trade negotiations; [and]
  • “Advance climate change adaptation and mitigation through partnerships.”

In order to ensure their own access to water and food production, some nations have either leased or purchased large tracts of land in some the least developed countries where the level of food insecurity is already among the highest in the world. These types of agreements could increase in the face of climate change. The Council notes that “in at least some cases the long-standing informal use rights of local farmers were ignored…. Efforts to address climate change and food security should be sensitive to the rights of farmers in places where these rights are not already well enforced. Better developed property rights and transparency in all land purchases are important for food and nutrition security generally and adaptation to climate change.”

The Council, as a part of its call for greater funding of agricultural research, identifies a number of broad areas that it calls blue skies research. The term, “blue skies, refers to scientific research where ‘real-world’ applications are not immediately apparent but could potentially have great value.” Each of the areas identified draws on examples from nature.

The first area deals with the concept of increasing the efficiency of carbon fixation in photosynthesis in food plants. Three percent of all plants, including corn and sugarcane, use a method that scientists call C4; all other plants use the C3 method. “C4 plants have an advantage in environments with drought, higher temperatures, and low nitrogen availability and use carbon dioxide more efficiently.” If varieties of the most important food crops could be bred to use the C4 method, it potentially would go a long way towards “improving the productivity” of these crops “in the face of climate change.” Who would own this technology was not addressed in the report.

The next “blue skies” idea is one that has long been promoted by Wes Jackson and the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (http://landinstitute.org)—the breeding of food crops that are almost exclusively annuals into perennials. As Jackson has pointed out and the Council’s publication notes: “fields with perennial crops offer many benefits for food security and climate change adaptation. The benefits include reduced soil erosion because perennial crops have greater root mass and protect the soil year-round; reduced chemical runoff and more effective fertilizer uptake because their extensive root systems are more efficient at absorbing chemicals; and lower fossil fuel emissions than annual agriculture because annual tillage is not needed.” Many of today’s crops have wild ancestors that are perennials.

A large number of plants have the ability to either fix nitrogen or grow in saline soils. Breeding other plants to carry either or both of these traits has the potential to increase the security of food production. Growing plants that have the ability to fix nitrogen would reduce the need for inorganic fertilizers. “If [the saline tolerance] mechanism could be transferred to food crops, it would make production possible in some marginal areas and keep coastal agriculture viable in the face of rising sea levels.”

In addition, research into the mechanism that bacteria use to fix nitrogen “might reduce the cost and energy use of current fertilizer manufacturing technologies.”

Most of the water in the world is the salt water of the oceans. At present, the desalinization of sea water is “expensive and requires large amounts of energy.” Research that finds ways to reduce the amount of energy required for desalinization could increase the availability of fresh water.

The report also raises another area of research that Jackson has long advocated for: the benefits of polyculture—growing multiple crops at the same time in the same field. In the report this is called a mixed farming system. These systems have many advantages.

“To benefit from mixed farming systems, farmers must experiment continuously to find desirable practices. On individual farms, farmers experiment over generations to find combinations that take advantage of local conditions and meet local needs. The question is whether these local optimizations can be scaled up. If recent breakthroughs in analysis of big data, application of information technology to farm management (including automated devices), and computational biology are combined with farm-level data of sufficient quality and diversity, the scaling up [of mixed farming systems] may indeed be possible,” the Council writes.

The details of the Council’s recommendations that run 35 pages—much more than we can cover in our column—provide a starting point for identifying strategies that will increase food security in the face of climate change.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu and hdschaffer@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.

Family Farming and the Future of Agriculture

Posted on | July 1, 2014 | No Comments

By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union President

In the United States, farmers are getting older, farms are getting bigger, and the number of farms is decreasing. According the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), between 2007 and 2012 the United States saw a net decrease of 95,489 farms. The most recent census showed that the average age of a farmer is 57, up from 54 in 1997. This may not be news to some, but it creates real problems in rural America.

The quality of life in rural communities depends on its people. Not long ago, rural communities were sustained by a robust segment of the population actively involved in agriculture. However, due various factors, making a living in agriculture became tough. Farmers sold their land and moved to urban areas where there was more opportunity. Big farms swallowed up smaller farms. With fewer and fewer farmers, rural communities began to suffer. There is now an acute need for new, beginning and transitioning farmers and ranchers to enter the agriculture sector.

Getting into farming isn’t easy. Access to capital, financing and land are major hurdles that potential farmers face. Technical expertise is also often lacking, so a strong support system is needed to fill the gaps. Luckily, the 2014 farm bill provides various incentives to make it easier to get into agriculture.

An unlikely place to look for new and beginning farmers is in our nation’s veterans. USDA data shows that although rural Americans make up only 17 percent of the population, it accounts for 44 percent of the military. When soldiers return home from tours abroad, they are looking for a career that gives them a sense of purpose. Since many are from rural communities, farming can provide an excellent way for our men and women in uniform to make a valuable contribution here at home.

NFU is doing its part to support beginning, new and transitioning farmers and ranchers. Besides championing policies on Capitol Hill, NFU created and implements the Beginning Farmers Institute (BFI). This is a unique program that develops and encourages agricultural leaders from all backgrounds. Leadership training and farm management skills are taught to promising individuals eager to enter or expand their agricultural operations. NFU is proud to have represented family farmers and ranchers since 1902. We will continue to support policies that encourage new and beginning farmers to enter agriculture.

Please join NFU as it celebrates 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

Chicago Council strategizes response to climate and food security issues

Posted on | June 30, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org.

After examining the impact of human-induced climate change on agriculture—along with an overview of climate science—and the reasons that agriculture needs to take immediate steps to adapt to climate change, the publication, “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate” (www.tinyurl.com/mb4pj5s), produced by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs outlines a series of strategies that they believe will both mitigate the impact of climate change and advance global food security.

While, in the next 35 years, many farmers will experience weather events that are beyond anything they have experienced to date, they will also have to contend with the increasing scarcity of inputs as well as volatility in the price of those inputs. During this same period, the need for agricultural products will increase because of a larger and more affluent population.

But the future need not be as bleak as this analysis suggests if decisions are made by “governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations” to help agriculture adapt to climate change. The publication then identifies a series of strategies that it believes will enhance food security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the resilience of agriculture as it faces unprecedented challenges.

Increasing the level of agricultural research stands at the top of their list of strategies. The research program needs to include plants and animals, both domesticated and wild. The challenges researchers need to address are higher temperatures, increased weather variability, the efficient use of water, and growing crops on marginal soils, while increasing crop nutrition and yields. They call for the preservation of the germplasm of both plants and animals. To accomplish this, it will take both public and private research in the US and in research centers and universities around the world.

To guide the agenda of researchers and the strategies of producers, climate scientists will need to have access to a growing array of data to improve their models. The needed data include increases in weather variability, changes in ground-level ozone, increases in the salinization of soils and aquifers, increases in the prevalence of  pests, and diseases, as well as the resistance of pests, pathogens and diseases to treatments.

Other issues that will need to be incorporated into the models are changes beyond the farmgate like the disruption of food distribution channels and social unrest.

The scale of farming operations around the world goes from mega-operations that have access to hundreds of thousands of hectares to those that operate on fractions of a hectare. The large industrial-like operations produce the bulk of the agricultural products in commercial trade, while the vast majority of farmers operate on small plots of land. For research and policies to be effective, they must be tailored to the individual farm whether it is large or small, high-tech or low-tech.

The report identifies a number of existing technologies that could be used by smallholder farmers if local circumstances were taken into account.

In addition there are existing practices that farmers on larger operations could begin to use immediately. Together farmers could begin to adapt to climate change even before the fruits of increased research become available. One point the report highlights is the importance of recognizing the contribution women can make “in enhancing agricultural productivity and resilience.” In addition, “the financial needs of smallholder farmers must be met.”

The report issues a word of warning about policies that hinder food security. These include the pricing of agricultural inputs—by subsidies or taxes—as well as policies that interfere with agricultural trade and the transmission of price signals to farmers as production areas change in response to a changing climate.

The report points out that “Although future weather patterns remain uncertain, some climate change adaptation can already be built into infrastructure design for agriculture. It is usually much cheaper to build with likely climate change in mind than to retrofit. Some examples follow:

  • New rural roads should be built to withstand higher temperatures and more extreme events.
  • Dams and irrigation systems should be designed for more extreme rainfall events.
  • Construction of levies and coastal defenses for countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam should be built for rising sea levels.
  • Soft’ landscape engineering such as the planting of riverine forests should be considered in flood control projects.
  • Passive policy measures such as the preservation of forests, natural grasslands, and mangroves should be put into place.”

This section of the report concludes that agriculture can make a significant contribution to slowing global warming while “supporting food and nutrition security.” Farmers can intensify production on existing land rather than increasing the land area under production, avoiding the surge in greenhouse gas emission that results from bringing new land into production. This strategy would include the remediation of farmland that has become degraded due to a variety of circumstances.

Improved animal feeding practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “In some parts of the world, meat consumption can be reduced to slow the growth of agricultural emissions,” the report points out. Improved water and fertilizer management can also help mitigate climate change while improving food security.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu and hdschaffer@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.

Farming Means a World of Good

Posted on | June 23, 2014 | No Comments

By Meghan Osterbauer of Benson, Minn.

At the end of June 2013, I attended the National Farmers Union All-States Leadership Camp in Bailey, Colo. I can genuinely say that it was one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve ever had. I gained an entirely new outlook on everything just by spending one short week with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. In that brief time, I made lifelong friendships.

How does that work? How is it that after a few short days these complete strangers that I don’t even really have that much in common with have become so important to me?

Then I remembered a sort of mantra we had at camp. We would say, “This week, I am from all states.” Not from Minnesota or North Dakota or Wisconsin…. we are from all states. You didn’t really know or care where people were from.  I realized that that was the key. The key was that at All-States Leadership Camp we focused on all states ­– or what we had in common — and became friends because of it.

Now imagine if we could do this for everyone in the world. If we could look at a globally uniting factor such as farming … if we can just grab that idea, that we all need farming and that it is something we all share and we use that to hold us all together, then the differences among us become our “uniques” and our contributions the world community rather than rifts that separate us into different groups of people. These separations cause problems.

In order to generate the idea that one group of people is better than another, we must first entertain the notion that there are separate groups of people. No.  If something we all share, a common factor like farming, can show that we don’t have to divide ourselves like this. Farming says we don’t have to be these people and those people…. farming can make us ask the question:  Why can’t we all just be people? And it is when the world understands we are all just people, we will find peace. And so I will argue that farming means a world of good.

Meghan is majoring in psychology at the University of Minnesota in Duluth and was a member of the NFU National Youth Advisory Council.

Adapting the global food system to climate change should be a priority,” says CCGA

Posted on | June 19, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org.

The first portion of the publication, “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate” (www.tinyurl.com/mb4pj5s), by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) focuses on the science of global warming and the impact it will have on agricultural production—see our column (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/723.html) for a summary of this analysis.

It is our observation that much of the denial—including by some in the US farming community—of the concept of human-induced climate change has less to do with scientific analysis than it does with the policy implications of climate change. They don’t like the regulatory policies—like cap and trade (a proven market-oriented motivator originally proposed by free market advocates) or just about any Environmental Protection Agency emissions controls—that might be required.

The CCGA analysis that we look at in this column suggests that doing nothing could be worse.

In the second section of the council’s publication, the lead author, Gerald C Nelson, makes the case that given the magnitude of the impact that global warming will have on farmers and food production worldwide, “adapting the global food system to climate change should be a priority.”

Nelson begins by identifying research that indicates that as average temperatures increase by a couple of degrees, crop yields begin to decrease by as much as a couple of percent a decade. The impact on yield is most likely to occur in low latitude regions where hunger is already the greatest.

He also makes the case that the current models used by climate scientists probably underestimate “the impacts of climate change. Even if the world’s population were to remain stable, climate change would put significant pressure on agricultural production. The combination of population increase and a growing middle class in the developing world makes the challenges agriculture faces even greater.

It is estimated that wheat yields in South Asia will decline by 12 percent over the first half of the 20th century. Thirty years later, the yield loss will have increased to 29 percent.

As a result, Nelson writes, “given the long lead times needed to advance scientific research and transfer new technologies and farming practices to the field, action must be taken now to meet the increasingly difficult challenges of climate change.” Waiting until the last minute to invest in the needed agricultural research is not a reasonable option.

To manage the challenges brought about by climate change, farmers will have to adapt by growing new crops, changing agricultural practices, and purchasing different inputs. The cost of making these changes will divert resources that otherwise would be used “for other farming upgrades.” Some areas will no longer suitable for agricultural production, forcing farmers off the land.

Nelson argues that not only will consumers face higher prices generally they will also see more price spikes like the one that occurred in 2008. Those most affected by higher prices, punctuated by price spikes, will be the poor. Nearly half of those facing chronic hunger “are smallholder farmers living in rural parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.”

He continues writing, “if the international community wants a world without hunger, it must equip the world’s food producers to grow more food using fewer resources in the face of climate change.”

One of the results of food shortages and higher food prices is civil unrest. During the 2008 food price spike, over 30 countries experienced increased social tension. Quoting from the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review by the US Department of Defense, Nelson makes the case that food is a security issue, at both the national and global levels.

He concludes the second section saying, “Our nation [the US] has a strong interest in preventing the sorts of conflicts that open the way for civil wars or turn weakened states into sanctuaries for terror groups that pledge harm to the United States and its allies. When events spiral out of control, US intervention in the form of emergency food assistance—or even more costly military engagement—becomes more likely.”

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; dray@utk.edu and hdschaffer@utk.edu; http://www.agpolicy.org.

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About NFU

National Farmers Union was founded in 1902 in Point, Texas, to help the family farmer address profitability issues and monopolistic practices. NFU works to protect and enhance the economic well-being and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities through advocating grassroots-driven policy positions adopted by its membership.
Learn more at nfu.org

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