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Protecting the Environment While Feeding Billions

Modibo Traoré, Assistant Director-General responsible for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department. (Photo: E. Izewski/IAEA)

It's estimated that by 2050 there will be an additional two billion mouths to feed. And overall the earth's climate is getting warmer, leading to more droughts in some areas and more floods in others; both of which damage soil and threaten agriculture.

To address the issues of climate change and population growth without leaving more people hungry, scientists are helping farmers develop agricultural practices that have the potential to increase production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions; emissions which contribute to climate change.

This combination of practices is called climate smart agriculture.

Here, Modibo Traoré, Assistant Director-General responsible for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department, talks about climate smart agriculture and why these practices need to be adopted to improve production and preserve the environment:

What is climate smart agriculture?

"Climate smart agriculture is agriculture that doesn't only take into account the need to produce more to ensure food security, but also the need to adapt to the changing climate so that production can increase to meet growing demand, but in a sustainable way. At the same time, this is practicing agriculture in a way that helps mitigate the impact of agricultural production on the climate."

FACT: Agriculture contributes more than 15% to global greenhouse gas emissions.

"When considering climate smart agriculture, the first thing we need to think about is ensuring there is adequate food for everyone (food security), which is our main goal in agriculture.

"Some people think that the agriculture industry should be treated like any other industry contributing to climate change - slash production, slash emissions. But it can't work like that. If we slash food production millions starve to death. We cannot simply decide that we won't feed part of the population."

FACT: Maintaining soil nutrient quality is a major part of climate smart agriculture. Since 1990 an area three times the size of Germany has been lost to erosion.

"There are seven billion people now, and there will be nine billion by 2050. These nine billion people need to be fed. To feed them would create more carbon emissions than feeding seven billion. That's obvious. But what the FAO is advocating is that we begin farming in such a way that the use of natural resources is minimised, so the emissions per consumer go down significantly.

"The second key factor in climate smart agriculture is adapting to the climate we have, not hoping it will go back to the way it was 100 years ago. A part of adaptation is developing new varieties of plants and livestock that flourish in this warmer climate. Without adapted genetic material we would produce less and less food, and be unable to achieve the objective of food security."

How can nuclear techniques help?

"The development of plants and livestock that resist disease, and grow despite less water, is an area where the IAEA's considerable expertise can be and are being utilised. Nuclear and nuclear-related techniques should continue to play a key role in the development of better, more flexible agriculture practices and products."

FACT: Agricultural irrigation uses about 70% of all fresh water consumed annually.

How cost effective is climate smart agriculture as opposed to other agricultural practices?

"In fact, it's not about what's cheaper. We don't have a choice. Climate smart agriculture is an imposition, not an option. The weather we have, the environment we now live in, have all imposed this approach on us if we want to preserve our way of life."

Since it's essential, how much headway have we made in having these practices adopted by the majority of farmers?

Climate smart agriculture is a very new concept. The FAO is working with other organisations and institutions to try to put rules and principles in place that will guide its implementation.

"There are many unknowns at this early stage. So we are sharing knowledge, and transferring the knowledge we gain to farmers so that they will be able to do what's necessary to maintain production as environmental conditions become more difficult. We're working on it and it's becoming more and more popular.

"The FAO is very proud to have contributed to the coining of this concept."

When you say it's becoming more popular, what kind of penetration are we talking about?

"We can't give numbers at the moment. Our aim now is to sensitize farmers to its importance. The entire industry needs to make sure that it's making the best use of the natural resources by implementing the principles of sustainable intensification of agricultural production while preserving the environment."

Last update: 27 Jul 2017

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