J-WAFS zeroes in on food security as agricultural impacts of climate crisis become more apparent

The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab presents a new report on climate, agriculture, water, and food security – with plans for more research.

If the world is to be free of hunger and malnutrition in accordance with the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems must be rapidly implemented in order to adapt to climate change. Research launched by J-WAFS seeks to map out the most strategic ways that research can be used to ensure a global transition toward food-system sustainability.

If the world is to be free of hunger and malnutrition in accordance with the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems must be rapidly implemented in order to adapt to climate change. Research launched by J-WAFS seeks to map out the most strategic ways that research can be used to ensure a global transition toward food-system sustainability.

Early this August, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued yet another in a series of grave and disquieting reports outlining the extreme challenges placed on the Earth’s systems by the climate crisis. Most IPCC reports and accompanying media coverage tend to emphasize greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from energy and transportation sectors, along with the weather and sea-level impacts of climate change and their direct impact on vulnerable human populations. However, this particular report, the “Special Report on Climate Change and Land,” presents a sobering set of data and analyses addressing the substantial contributions of agriculture to climate change and the ways the climate crisis is projected to jeopardize global food security if urgent action is not taken at the individual, institutional, industry, and governmental levels.

There is an ever-increasing public awareness about climate’s effects on the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, threats to coastal cities, and the rapid decline in the biodiversity of the Earth’s ecosystems. However, the impact of climate change on land and food production – and the impact of our food systems on climate change – is just beginning to enter the wider public discourse. Food systems are responsible for up to 30 percent of global GHG emissions, with agricultural activities accounting for up to 86 percent of total food-system emissions. And agriculture is a sector that is put at significant risk by the direct and indirect effects of the Earth’s rising temperatures. In order to adapt to future climate uncertainty and to minimize agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, strategies addressing the sustainability and adaptive capacity of food systems must be developed and rapidly implemented.

With so much at stake, targeted research that reaches beyond disciplinary and institutional boundaries is needed. Since its 2014 launch at MIT, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has promoted research and innovation across diverse disciplines that will help ensure the resilience of the world’s water and food systems even as they are increasingly pressured by the effects of climate change. Its newly released report, “Climate Change, Agriculture, Water, and Food Security: What We Know and Don’t Know,” is part of this effort. The report collects the central findings of an expert workshop conducted by J-WAFS in May 2018. The workshop gathered 46 experts in agriculture, climate, engineering, and the physical and natural sciences from around the world – several of whom were also involved in writing the August 2019 IPCC report – to discuss current understanding of the complex relationship between climate change and agriculture. This report, based on the workshop deliberations, initiates a longer study that will directly engage stakeholders to address how research can be best targeted to the needs of policymakers, funders, and other decision-makers and stakeholders.

Central to the conclusions of the 2018 workshop was widespread agreement among participants of the need for convergence research that addresses the climate crisis in food systems. Convergence research is built around deep integration across disciplines in order to address complex problems focusing on societal need. By deploying transdisciplinary teams with expertise in plant, soil, and climate science, agricultural technologies, agribusiness, economics, behavior change and communication, marketing, nutrition, and public policy, convergence research promotes innovative approaches to formulating and evaluating adaptation and mitigation strategies for future food security.

A study that J-WAFS is now launching will take this approach. As part of the new study, J-WAFS is partnering with three internationally renowned institutions with complementary expertise in agriculture and food systems. Titled “Climate Change and Global Food Systems: Supporting Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies with Research,” the collaborative project will leverage the myriad disciplines and specialties of a cross-institutional group of researchers, along with stakeholders and decision-makers, in order to develop a prioritized, actionable, solutions-oriented research agenda. The project’s goal is to determine which research questions must be answered, and which innovations must be prioritized, in order to ensure that global food security can be met even while the climate crisis wreaks havoc on global food systems. The project will help develop stronger connections and collaborative partnerships across diverse research communities (in particular, MIT and the partner universities) and with the stakeholders and decision-makers who fund research, develop policy, and implement programs to support agriculture and food security.

The three collaborating universities who are joining MIT in this effort are: Wageningen University in the Netherlands – an institution which is at forefront of agriculture and food systems research; Tufts University – an international leader in interdisciplinary food and nutrition research, especially through its Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy; and the University of California at Davis, whose College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences ranks No. 1 in the United States for agriculture, plant sciences, animal science, forestry, and agricultural economics. Says Ermias Kebreab, associate dean for global engagement in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, “the project will address several grand challenges that align very well with the mission and goals of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Collaborating with MIT and other project partners presents exciting opportunities to extend the reach and impact of the UC Davis research.”

With potential dire impacts of the climate crisis on our global food systems, opportunities for transformative change must be found. But there currently exist significant knowledge gaps on the best practices, technologies, policies, and development approaches for achieving food security with win-win solutions at the nexus of climate change and food systems. J-WAFS’ workshop report emphasized that more research is required to better characterize specific challenges and to develop, evaluate, and implement effective strategies. Specific areas where research presents significant opportunities include understanding and improving soil quality and fertility; the development of technologies such as advanced biotechnology, carbon sequestration, and geospatial tools; fundamental research questions about crop response to environmental stresses, such as high temperatures and drought; improvements to crop and climate models; approaches to manage risk in the face of uncertain risk; and the development of strategies to effect behavioral change, particularly around food choices.

It may yet be possible to sustainably produce enough nutritious food to feed the world while at the same time reversing the current trends in its production that damage the environment. As stated by John H. Lienhard V, J-WAFS director and MIT professor, “the next green revolution will be delivered using new farming practices, emerging scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and insights from the social sciences, all combined to provide effective policies, equitable social programs, and much-needed changes in consumer behavior.”

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