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Which are the right crops to enable food security under future climates?

Nutritious crops like common bean are under-researched precisely in the areas where they will be hardest hit by climate change. Credit: Bioversity International/J.Coronel

A new paper sets out to determine if crop-specific research investments can be prioritized to anticipate climate change impact on crops and enable the production of more nutritious food.

As world leaders at the UN's 24th Conference on Climate Change in Poland grapple with how to implement agreements made in Paris 2015 to reduce carbon emissions, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we have just "12 years to limit catastrophe".

It is well-documented that agriculture is the second largest contributor to carbon emissions after the energy sector. At the same time, climate change is affecting our ability to grow food. The IPCC predicts that yields of major crops will reduce by 2% while demand increases by 14% every decade until 2050. Up to 40% of the world’s land could develop novel climates often with new crop pests and diseases.

Additionally, rising CO2 levels are linked to a decrease in crop nutrients. When grown under elevated CO2 concentrations, many food crops – including wheat, rice, barley and soybeans – have lowered concentrations of nutrients, including many that are important for overall health, such as iron, zinc, and protein. Even under current conditions, agricultural systems are failing to address malnutrition of more than 2 billion people who suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. This is also partly due to the insufficient production of nutrient-rich crops. If every person on the planet tried to consume the recommended daily amount of 400g of fruits and vegetables, they would find that the global supply of fruits and vegetables falls 22% short  – a shortfall that rises to 50% in some low-income countries.

So going forward, how do we choose the right crops that can deliver on nutrition and thrive in new climates? A new paper ‘Are agricultural researchers working on the right crops to enable food and nutrition security under future climates’ provides a first step in answering this question. It sets out to determine if crop-specific research investments can be prioritized to anticipate climate change impact on crops and enable the production of more nutritious food.

The research focuses on an array of starch and pulse crops. It combines a simple modelling approach that maps expected future changes in regional climate suitability for crops, with a review of crop-specific research outputs and the total nutrient output available for human consumption. Results show that investment levels are mostly associated with the energy outputs of crops rather than the nutrition outputs. In addition, levels are slightly lower for crops better adapted to future climates and decrease as crop nutrient richness increases.

As Jacob van Etten, Senior Scientist, Bioversity International and co-author of the paper explains: “While there is agreement that climate change and malnutrition present a double challenge, there is less agreement about how crop-related research and development efforts should respond. For example, should investments seek to prop up a current crop that is losing ground to climate change, or should they be diverted to alternative crops that are expected to win under climate change and have high potential for human nutrition?”

These kinds of decisions are more complex than simply moving away from energy-rich staples to producing more pulses, fruits and vegetables that can adapt to future climates. It must include more consideration of which crops and which varieties to prioritize within diverse food groups. This complexity is compounded by the lack of information about many potential alternative crops including many overlooked food species that could be strategic assets to help fix the food system. A recent study by Bioversity International in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) revealed that 93% of vegetable species are neglected when it comes to research, conservation and documentation, in particular those from Africa and the Asia-Pacific Region.

When it comes to starch and pulse crops, Rhys Manners, Postdoctoral Fellow, IITA and the other co-author of the paper explains: “Starch-rich crops like maize, barley and rice receive substantially more investment than justified by their current nutrition output, whereas crops like sweet potato, wheat, broad beans and lentils are under-researched. For example, our study shows crops like sweet potato, lentils and chickpeas are under-researched in regions that have improving climate suitability. Whereas nutritious crops like common bean are under-researched precisely in the areas where they will be hardest hit by climate change.”

The study recognizes that this is a complex area and that research and development investments will need to consider many more factors than those of its scope. The fast-changing context of food production under climate change is also compounding the challenge.

But one thing is clear – there are many under-researched crops with potential to deliver on nutrition that may thrive in future climate conditions. Rather than continuing to invest in a ‘crops as usual’ approach, it is time to put funding and research efforts into building a diversified portfolio of climate change and nutrition winners.

Read the paper:
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378017311573

For more information, contact:
Jacob van Etten


This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and is supported by CGIAR Trust Fund donors.

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