Report highlights conflict in agricultural research

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Efforts to increase food production are clashing with efforts to reduce agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions says a group of international scientists.

Agricultural research to improve food security often depends on technology to increase yields and crop intensification -- resulting in greenhouse gas emissions that damage the environment and help increase climate change, an independent commission of scientists has said.

At the same time, other research projects are working to reduce agriculture's harmful gas emissions.

Agricultural production, particularly intensive agriculture, accounts for almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in some countries. Yet major agricultural research projects in Africa for example, still focus on solutions that produce high levels of greenhouse gases, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, an initiative of the global research funding partnership, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research said this week (16 November).

Intensification of food production must be accompanied by concerted action to reduce emissions from agricultural production  to avoid accelerating climate change and threatening the long term viability of global agriculture, the commission said.

Judi Wakhungu, commission member and executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Kenya said: 'We need to integrate food security and sustainable agriculture into global and national policies'.

Neither COP17, the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which meets in Durban, South Africa from 28 November, nor the work within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are tackling the issue of sustainable agriculture intensification and its links to climate change, the commission members said.

Science needs to be more interdisciplinary if it is to tackle the two problems together.  

'What we'd like the big agricultural research projects to do is to be much more diverse in terms of techniques employed,' said Wakhungu.

'There are many ways of increasing yields sustainably, as well as delivering climate benefits. For example, techniques such as Integrated Crop Management (ICM) help farmers adapt to climate change and resource scarcity using alternative wetting and drying and balanced fertilisation which lowers methane and nitrous dioxide, therefore reducing the amount of fertiliser used.'

And agroforestry techniques allow  food production to occur under a full canopy of trees which restores exhausted soils with richer sources of nutrients and increases yields.

Another Commission member, Megan Clark, chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia said: 'We can improve root systems to be much more efficient in taking up what is applied in the soil so that smaller amounts of fertiliser can be applied directly to the plant.'

But she added that more efficient use of resources is also  an important approach. Around a third of food produced for human consumption is wasted through inadequate storage, infrastructure or through farming and processing practices.  

The Commission said better 'real-time' information on land use, markets and populations needs to accompany research into climate resilient crops and increased yields.

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