The recent IPCC special report Climate Change and Land emphasizes the need for smarter policies and land management practices, given extreme climate shocks, climate variability, and longer-term climate change. According to the report, industrial agriculture and the food industry are almost as big a driver of climate change as fossil fuels, and about 23% of global greenhouse gases come from agriculture and other land use. With this stark reality, it’s essential to revisit the way the world produces food, and effectively plans for impending food crises by using climate services.
Agricultural development is a critical way to end extreme poverty, boost shared prosperity, and feed a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050. Climate-smart agricultural policy development plays a crucial role in creating a thriving and climate-resilient food economy.
Climate, an important driver of food production
The most critical climate shocks for agriculture and food security include droughts, floods, and sea level rise, which are projected to be more severe and frequent in the future. Continuous water deficits cause acute water shortages, low yields, food insecurity, and the decimation of both livestock and wildlife. Droughts affect economic growth, increase poverty, and intensify conflicts between farmers and breeders. In the most vulnerable zones to rising climate variability, such as South Asia and Africa, the current lack of adaptation measures, combined with poor climate information and early warning systems, could exacerbate vulnerability to extreme events and food insecurity.
Dry spells, early/late onsets and cessation of rainy seasons continue to be critical drivers of famines, from the Sahel to Central America’s dry corridor, leading to millions spent in emergency food assistance annually. Given that agriculture is strongly influenced by the spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall amount recorded per year, any lack of information on start/cessation of the rainy season can lead to crop failure and famine. Today, national meteorological and hydrological services routinely deliver seasonal rainfall/cessation forecasts to the wide public in their countries. But the question remains: why aren’t we using these as a guiding light for seasonal agricultural planning? Good and timely climate information services, when used correctly, can lead to better agricultural planning, including when and where to sow, when to harvest, and what crop varieties to choose. If agro-climatic parameters are timely, accessible, and accurate, they could improve food security while implementing the land management changes suggested in the IPCC special report.
Climate information services for food security planning
To satisfy the growing demand in food, reduce emissions, and achieve the SDGs, we must improve agricultural practices along a low carbon pathway. More effective land management and mitigation efforts, such as afforestation and other near-term solutions proposed by the IPCC special report, should therefore prominently feature the use of climate information services. Combined with sustainable land management and climate-smart agriculture practices, climate services can help policymakers make better decisions that build the resilience of national agricultural systems and global value chains.
It’s also critical for decision-makers, including the local agribusiness entrepreneurs, agricultural ministry planners, private sector operators, and large global value chain companies, to use advances from climate science to routinely forecast anticipated climatic conditions. As forecasting skills have improved, the decision-making cycles have not followed to ensure climate-informed food security planning.
Current challenges and gaps for efficient climate services
Despite the promise of climate services, there remains numerous challenges to delivering them in a tailored, accurate and timely manner. These include the low capacity of climate service providers, poor and inaccurate primary meteorological data, and the lack of capacity of national meteorological and hydrometeorological services to operate and maintain climate observation equipment. There is also a huge gap in knowledge on how to use climate and meteorological forecasts to guide food security planning decisions, along with insufficient awareness of governments on the necessity of supporting climate institutions, which has led to low budget allocations. Taken together, these challenges widen the gap between availability of climate services, and their usability for decision-making in the face of rising climate-related shocks.
Addressing these challenges and gaps requires new funding mechanisms, individual and institutional capacity building, accelerated knowledge transfer, enhanced technology development, and the implementation of early warning systems.
Towards a sustainable food supply solution
This work won’t be easy. The effective use of climate information and early warning services to guide food security planning has numerous obstacles to overcome. First, we need to design low-cost ways to produce and deliver new technologies for climate services. Improvements in service delivery and co-design with food security planners, from local to global scales, will also be essential to ensure services are fit-for-purpose to address decision-making requirements. Attaining these goals holds promise of meeting our double imperative of feeding 10 billion people, while safeguarding the delicate balance of our earth’s climate system.
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