Climate change: is food part of the problem or part of the solution? The point of view of Patrick Caron

Can our agricultural and food systems meet the challenges of the fight against climate change? To learn more about the direction our production and consumption habits should follow, discover the point of view of Patrick Caron, Geographer at CIRAD* and Chairman of High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the CFS**


Food transition and climate change: at the crossroads

If you’re wondering whether food is part of the problem or the solution when it comes to climate change, the answer is very simple: both! And I could stop there. But the links to be made are actually extremely complex and it would be interesting to take a closer look.

Taking stock of the effects of climate change at global level

Both farming reality and scientific observation demonstrate that climate change is already affecting crops. If we need any reminder of that, it is only necessary to point out how harvest dates have moved forward in France over the last century. Analyses conducted by many of my research colleagues and the resulting syntheses confirm this observation. This is an ongoing underlying trend that can be seen in many places across the planet. All this has definitely happened, and the effects will be accentuated if we do not change our modes of production and consumption now, without waiting for the predicted disasters: crop schedules have been profoundly altered and yields are being affected. Many studies are now available, predicting significant reductions in yields. Of course, these changes will not have the same form or the same intensity everywhere. Generally, the forecasts predict a much greater fall in yields between the tropics, in regions where the issues of food security are already the most acute and demographic growth and migratory processes are the most intense. Once the impacts of global warming have been assessed, it is necessary to act. To forecast the global consequences of these disruptions and develop appropriate solutions for each area.

Anticipating the global consequences

The climate disruptions, which should really be thought of in the plural, are more than just a rise in temperature. All the conditions for crop cultivation and physiological processes are affected, projecting us into unknown contexts and making it impossible to draw on simple, available solutions. One of the best examples of these transformations is the emergence of new health problems. In the same way as they affect human health, environmental changes are a source of problems that seriously affect crop cultivation and livestock farming, the availability of food and thus the prospects for human nutrition and health. The picture would be incomplete without mentioning the increasing frequency of extreme phenomena—droughts, flooding, hurricanes, etc.—whose impact on crops is fairly easy to imagine.

These climatic, ecological and biological changes will lead to major economic, political and social disruption. Some regions may benefit, but others will be considerably affected by the drop in yields, the emergence of diseases and the disappearance of whole areas of production. This will raise the question of how they will adapt to survive. The impact of population movements and the resulting potential for conflicts cannot be neglected. Aside from food shortages, the global map of production will change.

Meeting tomorrow’s challenges: climate change, an inevitability?

In this context, many solutions will be specific to individual situations. As we plunge into the unknown, we have the ability to imagine some of them, mobilising knowledge and skills and adapting them to new challenges. But much remains to be done to increase our understanding and act accordingly, by developing new ways of evaluating performance that consider the multiple functions expected of our actions. For example, while we can easily measure yields, it is harder to evaluate the effects generated by this or that practice or technique in terms of carbon sequestration, biodiversity, job creation or political stability. The challenge is made even more complex and arduous since the solutions that are desirable in one place will not necessarily be beneficial on a global scale, which is where climate disruptions are taking place. This requires suitable compromise, arbitration and policy. The innovations solicited by these challenges will be political and organisational as well as technical.

So yes, profound transformations in food systems are absolutely necessary. To ensure production, but also to attenuate climate change, since the agricultural sector is responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions. Committing to these transformations is a powerful lever for meeting the upcoming challenges. We are currently witnessing a total repositioning of the agricultural sector within the international agenda: the goal is no longer just to produce food, but also to anticipate climate change and health problems, preserve the environment, ensure social justice and avoid conflict. In short, to make the world sustainable and meet the challenges of the 2030 Agenda. Not forgetting that what we need to produce also depends on what we consume, what we waste and how we organise trade, both locally and globally. The stakes are extremely high!


* The French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD)
** United Nations Committee on World Food Security.


This article was published in the seventh issue of open_resource magazine: "Sustainable food, sustainable planet"