Feature Story | 6-Sep-2023

Climate-smart food systems are essential in a burning world

The recent record-breaking heatwaves are seriously threatening our ability to produce food. Aly Abousabaa comments on why global leaders need to start funding food systems transformation, and urgent;y

International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas

Climate scientists have long predicted increased intensity and frequency of weather extremes, yet this year's record-breaking heatwaves, most notably across the United States, Southern Europe, and China, took even the most cautious observers by surprise. We need to adapt our food systems to what is fast becoming a new normal. 

Extreme weather events profoundly impact food production. Even the 1.5oC temperature increase outlined in the Paris Agreement is predicted to reduce global wheat yield by 6% as water-starved crops wither or fail to bloom for pollination, and plant pests and diseases increase. As well as this, during heatwaves, precious farm animals are stricken with heat or incinerated in fires along with critical farm infrastructure. Soil moisture evaporates, fertile earth washes away in flash floods, and high winds scour fragile topsoil. Desertification and global drylands are expanding before our eyes.

So, for me, this year’s recurrence of extreme weather is a sobering and irrefutable insight into the world’s agricultural future. Global leaders should reevaluate their climate adaptation measures, paying particular attention to their countries' food, land, and water systems.

Since ICARDA was founded over four decades ago, we have played a pivotal role in conserving precious regional plant biodiversity that has served as building blocks for over 880 climate-smart varieties we have released, now generating annual benefits worth US$850 million.  In the last five years alone, more than 120 of our cereal and legume crops, water-efficient or resilient to heat, disease, and pests, are growing in over 20 countries, thriving in places previously deemed too hot, pestilent, or dry. Our plow-free conservation agriculture projects are stabilizing and enhancing soils, and our sustainable water management approaches maximize the use of every drop available. Along with the use of indigenous plants, controlled grazing, and better agronomy to improve soil fertility, we are protecting the environment, reversing desertification, and offering more resilient livelihoods to farmers across the region.

But there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and much more investment for agri-research is urgently needed to scale up these innovations. This includes studies to inform more favorable policies, conducting market research to identify the best products and tools to focus on, and making a greater effort to demonstrate the benefits of our new approaches to rural farmers who may be hesitant to discard generations-old but unfit methods. Further, we are constantly battling the shifting goalposts of an intensifying climate change. What works today may not work tomorrow, so we must remain flexible so we can innovate for the challenges ahead.

As climate change accelerates, our work is more important and urgent than ever. Yet even given the vast body of climate-smart, evidence-based science, innovation, and proven solutions that CGIAR produces in partnership with organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we still struggle to access funding for our research. It is bewildering that investment for such an important and common goal is not a top priority for international decision-makers, especially when we offer clear pathways for innovative and diversified funding mechanisms, as well as the convening power to magnify the impact of donor investments by providing better research frameworks that have produced significant returns on investment.

I am certain that ignoring current, unsustainable farming practices will inevitably lead to a total collapse of global food production as we know it. The cost of climate-related damage to agri-food systems already severely impacts social and economic advancement in several countries in the Global North and Global South, which have manifested in the form of climate-driven migration, conflict, and other severe threats to global stability.

As COP28 approaches and CGIAR works alongside the UAE to inform global negotiators on food, land, and water systems transformation, I invite world leaders to look beyond their borders to fund, generate, and share in the wealth of knowledge and innovation that can make tomorrow’s food systems resilient and sustainable. The world needs only to tap into our science and innovations to transform 20th-century dryland food systems for 21st-century challenges.


Aly Abousabba is the Director General of ICARDA and the CGIAR Regional Director for the Central and West Asia and North Africa Region. Find out more about Aly HERE

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