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Scientists huddle on ag’s response to climate change

Erik Fernandez of the World Bank talks about how World Bank sees the oncoming issues during the Climate-Smart Agriculture Global Science Conference. Scientists and policy-makers met to analyze how to respond to the threats of climate change to global agriculture while meeting the world’s need for food, prosperity and sustainability. UC Davis/Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | March 21, 2013 |

About 350 scientists and policymakers from 35 countries have gathered at UC Davis to ponder a daunting task: doubling the food supply in order to feed a forecasted world population of 9 billion by 2050 — and doing it while rising world temperatures alter the landscape.

“We’re beginning to sort of set the scene, if you like, for a battle royale between the brightest minds of our planet and these kinds of challenges that we’re facing,” said Erik Fernandes, a World Bank agriculture and rural development adviser, as the three-day Climate-Smart Agriculture conference opened Wednesday at the Mondavi Center.

Chancellor Linda Katehi said it will be a “monumental challenge” that must be taken up by UCD, with its expertise in related disciplines and its land grant mission.

“The old science and technology will not be enough to meet it,” Katehi said. “We will need new science and policies to ensure food security and a healthy, sustainable planet. And we will need political will and commitment to make sure science and policy are blended together to have the kind of transformative impact the world needs.”

Fernandes said the bank is working to help its client states prepare for a change of at least 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial climate — and to alter their farming practices to slow the march toward what many scientists project may be a change of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) before the end of the century.

That likely would mean dry areas becoming dryer, wet areas becoming wetter, the inundation of coastal cities, loss of biodiversity and increased malnutrition, water scarcity, hurricanes and other storms.

Global temperatures already have climbed 0.8 degrees Celsius, and major food crop growing areas are increasingly affected by drought.

“The message is simple and clear for all of us: Climate change can roll back decades of development, and the poorest and most vulnerable will be hardest hit,” Fernandes said.

Conference organizer Louise Jackson, a professor and Cooperative Extension specialist in UCD’s department of land, air and water resources, said that a variety of ways to approach the puzzle of how to address the problem have been offered up.

“One approach to it is to really work on breeding crops that are more drought-tolerant, more heat-resistant, more stress-tolerant, to think of management practices in which people can have more flexibility …,” Jackson said.

“There’s another angle that we’re hearing about a lot at this conference, which is looking to a broader scale to what we call a landscape scale or regional scale and really asking the questions (like), ‘Do we have a really good idea of the soil and water resources that are going to be available to farmers in 20 or 30 years, especially with a hotter, possibly dryer climate in some places?’ ”

Jackson said that by putting together experts in, say, social science, natural science and agronomy together to lead discussions, organizers hoped to encourage more interdisciplinary research and more cooperation between those who view research at different levels: from the field to larger, landscape levels.

The World Bank, which planned the conference in conjunction with UCD, has advocated a focus on increasing food production, resiliency by lifting more people out of poverty and carbon sequestration.

Efforts must be made to halt expansion onto farmland (about 25 percent of which has already been significantly degraded), bring existing research to small farms to increase their yields, use farm inputs more strategically, reduce waste and shift diets, Fernandes said.

Changes in practices can yield major results, he said.

For example, work to halt land degradation in four provinces has helped lift 2.5 million Chinese there out of poverty in less than 20 years. By one estimate, improving water management by 1 percent worldwide could make available an additional 6 gallons per person annually.

Leslie Lipper, senior environmental economist for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, said that developing countries are concerned about what changes could be thrust upon them — and whether they will stifle growth.

“In general, as a group of researchers, we’re pretty good at figuring out the key research questions, and we’re pretty good at coming up with the answers, but we may not be so strong still (at communicating the results),” she said.

In a message read to attendees, Tina Monica Joemat-Pettersson, South Africa’s minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, said those in attendance must help educate policymakers, leaders and the public. Otherwise, largely invisible actions to arrest climate change will be a hard sell in countries where health care, education and housing are pressing, visible needs.

Already, eastern parts of South Africa are becoming wetter, shortening the seasons. The western cape, which claims some of the highest biodiversity on the planet, could be swallowed by surrounding desert. Migration patterns are changing.

Remember the human dimension of the crisis, Joemat-Pettersson urged.

“Science must be a public good which serves to improve the lives of people and not just a narrow academic pursuit,” she wrote.

— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden

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Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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