Dr Megan Clark, Chief Executive and CSIRO Board member.
Food fight: Scientists vs. Climate change
A major transformation in the food system is required if we are to address future threats to food security says CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Megan Clark. (9:41)
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Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROpod, I'm Glen Paul. On the 31st of October 2011 the world's population reached seven billion people, and has already risen by 20 million in the month since.
Obviously that's a lot of mouths to feed, and with famine and poverty rife in some parts of the world, you could say we’re hardly achieving that now, so it’s of great concern that the situation looks to worsen under climate change.
A report by the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, which is an independent global commission of eminent scientists, was released ahead of the UN global climate talks in Durban last year, and called for urgent action to deal with feeding the world in the face of climate change.
Dr Megan Clark, Chief Executive of CSIRO, represents Australian science on the Commission, and joins me in the studio. Thanks for coming in, Megan. Now firstly, how did this Committee come to be, and who exactly makes up the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change?
Dr Clark: Well first of all the Commission’s led by Sir John Beddington as Chief Scientist in the United Kingdom, and it brought together 13 countries, representatives from those countries, so from all the continents, and from independent groups such as CSIRO, and experts in the agricultural sector.
In terms of what’s the motivation for this, really there’s two key aspects. One is that we do have to produce more food, you know, in the next 60 years than we’ve produced in all of human history – a very daunting prospect. We’ve also got to feed new global mega cities, so you’ve even got the logistics of moving food into those mega cities, and we need to make sure that its good nutrition.
So we’ve got a billion people, who don’t have access to enough food, but we’ve also got a billion people who don’t have access to the right food and nutrition, and some of those people are even in the developed world. And then, you know, the reality is we’ve got a billion people who probably eat too much.
So we have the issue of food. We also have the fact that climate change can make some of our agricultural production areas around the world vulnerable, so agriculture is very vulnerable to this, but it’s also a contributor, and on average contributing around about 25 per cent – on average – with sort of fertilizer and land use, etcetera.
So these two aspects coming together, where you’ve got an industry globally that is potentially vulnerable, some real pressures happening with population and nutrition, and at the same time it’s a contributor, means that we really need to get this issue on the table.
And that’s what the Commissioners were really calling for in Durban, and to get the UN Commission on Climate Change, to get that group to really start to say yes, this issue needs a lot more work, and the Commission called for some very specific actions to be taken globally.
Glen Paul: Hmm. Just ahead of heading to Durban, how did this committee though different from the many other committees that have been set up looking into food security and climate change?
Dr Clark: It’s a great question, it’s one that we actually asked ourselves almost in the first meeting, and whilst agriculture has been looked at, and also climate change and where the hot spots might be, you’d be surprised at how little work actually looked at both of those things coming together, and so that was really the unique aspect of the committee.
But it certainly didn’t look to stand alone on that. In a sense we took nine or ten months to reveal all of the previous reports that had been done in many different countries, many different groups as well, and to stand on that and to make sure that we had all those conclusions.
So it was a very thorough piece of work, it took a long time. The full report for that will be coming out in January, and also it was for policy makers to make sure that we’d summarised what had been done before, so that there was a very comprehensive review of global thinking around this issue, and then specifically bringing together climate change and agriculture.
Having said that, one thing that surprised us as Commissioners, it was how little work had been done on bringing those two issues together.
We actually thought there had been some more, and it certainly really sort of stirred us in our call for action, to make sure one of the first things is done globally is that we do have an understanding of where we’ll see vulnerability, where we’ll see hot spots if you like in the world, and that there was good understanding of that globally.
Glen Paul: And just on Durban, how much influence do you think the report had, and were there any notable outcomes?
Dr Clark: Whilst there was some acknowledgement I think at Durban, it didn’t quite go as far as the Commissioners would like, and so we continue to put out a call to action, and we’ve just done that recently through science, and pulling together some of those major calls in terms of we need information, we need climate smart activity, we need to look at forest and agriculture.
So we had seven very specific recommendations, and we’re starting to see some traction that this technical work needs to be undertaken, and I think we’ll see further calls at Rio and other events.
It does require global action, and also you can see that different countries and different regions are also starting to look at this issue from their perspective. But what the Commissioners were really brought together to do was to really provide advice to our policy makers on this critical issue.
Glen Paul: Hmm, and on those areas that make a difference where could CSIRO research improve in some parts, or is lacking in at the moment, to help achieve this?
Dr Clark: Well, we are doing some good things. You know, there’s always gaps that we need to look at, but let me just start with some of the things we are doing. We have been developing drought tolerant wheat.
Australia has one of the most variable climates, and something we've had to deal with for decades, and so as a nation we’ve been actively working globally for many decades on dry land farming activity. So we’re doing things like that, you know drought tolerant sorghum, even sugarcane, a crop that grows in Queensland, and in other equatorial regions.
We’ve also been working with the Pacific Island nations, where root crops are very much part of their diet, and making sure that they’ve got resilient and drought tolerant root crops. So this work that we’ve been doing to increase production and resilience of the Australian continent certainly can be scaled globally.
We've seen in Cambodia some of the research on rice varieties that have very short growing seasons, so one of the issues if you’re trying to adapt to changing climate is to be able to get your crop in and get it off – so get it in, have it grow, harvest it – and so shortening that growing time actually gives you a lot of resilience.
And some cases in South East Asia we’ve seen that the farmers can put in two crops, and so that might mean the difference of no crop in a year versus having a quick crop, or getting two crops in.
Degraded land is also something that we need to be a lot better at. We lose a lot of hectares to degradation, some 12 million hectares every year. And this is something that we understand in Australia.
I remember decades ago we would talk about the impact of salinity on this country in terms of degraded land, and in our lifetime of course we see that play out as we drive through and see areas that have been degraded that can now no longer be used for wheat or sheep.
So we know what that feels like, we’ve seen it – how do we restore that degraded land? And we need to learn ways of growing plants that can handle degraded conditions, and then as they mature, and the soils mature, eventually bring that land back to productive land. That is a tough, tough thing to do.
So there’s many things that we can do a lot better, and many of the things that we do that can be scaled globally to assist the farming community around the world.
Glen Paul: And how well is CSIRO utilising its scientists in solving these issues?
Dr Clark: Well we've been working in climate adaptation for many, many years. In fact we were one of the first organisations to really start addressing that, recognising that we would need to adapt, and I think in response as a country to a climate that is one of the most vulnerable in the world, and one of the most variable in the world, it’s probably not surprising that Australia started that very early on.
So we have been working in that area, and of course our agricultural work, now working very closely with our climate team, and we’ve formed a new Flagship on Sustainable Agriculture, starting to look at really sort of smart, you know climate smart ways of boosting productivity, and at the same time reducing emissions, and they’re going to be some of the success stories of the future.
Glen Paul: Hmm. Now, I understand the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change itself is now at an end, but will the report still hold good for the various conferences coming up this year, such as the Plant under Pressure Conference in March, and the UN Rio+20 Conference on sustainability in June?
Dr Clark: Well, the work of the Commission hasn't finished, even though the report of the work will be completed in January.
And so the recommendations and the communications of those recommendations to stakeholders globally will continue both by the Commissioners in their regions, and then actively working, you know Planet under Pressure, we have Rio, we have other meetings that will influence the global community. We’re already seeing response from many of the major stakeholders and countries coming out and recognising that this issue does need to be on the table.
Glen Paul: Well food security is the one thing we have to get right, so thank you very much for discussing it with me today, Megan.
Dr Clark: Thank you very much, Glen. Pleasure.
Glen Paul: Dr Megan Clark, Chief Executive of CSIRO. For more information find us online at www.csiro.au. You can like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter at CSIROnews.