Feeding Asia while taking care of earth

The major story out of Bangkok in 2010 was extreme weather in the form of torrential monsoons that sent the Chao Phraya River on a rampage that left US$40 billion of flood damage in its wake. Extreme weather events were also a big story of 2010, but at the other end of the spectrum: a record drought that desiccated millions of dollars worth of crops.

These events offer a glimpse into our future in a changing climate. Scientists generally agree that one problem with an atmosphere that is rapidly accumulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is that weather extremes like those Thailand has recently seen will become more common. And among other things, this new order in which extremes become routine threatens to reverse decades of progress in dramatically boosting food production in the rice bowls and breadbaskets of Asia.

Also, despite our gains in food security, today, of the nearly 1 billion people in the world who don’t get enough to eat, more than half live in Asia. Moreover, our populations are growing rapidly. Reducing the food insecurity that exists today while keeping pace with population growth means that our farmers must significantly increase production. They need to do this even in the midst of wild swings in growing conditions and, furthermore, with approaches that do not further exacerbate climate change, such as by clearing forests—and releasing all of the carbon stored in them—to create more farmland.

The challenge can seem daunting. For example, millions of Asians who farm the region’s fertile river deltas will be particularly vulnerable to rapidly rising sea levels, which is bringing saltier water further and further inland. The vast coastline of Vietnam alone extends over 3,200 kilometers—roughly twice the length of California—and already in the Mekong River Delta salinity levels are rising in an area that is home to half of the country’s rice production.

The global Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change has produced a clear set of urgent actions that can be used by policy makers to usher in a new era of “climate-smart” agriculture, in which farmers are able to adapt to shifting growing conditions through the sustainable intensification of food production.

As a member of this Commission, I am deeply aware of the magnitude of the threats we face and how difficult it can be to boost agriculture production without adding yet more emissions to the “greenhouse.” But I am also encouraged by the way scientists are responding to these challenges with practical, accessible innovation.

Last month, climate specialists and agriculture and development experts from around the world came to Bangkok for a conference on Climate Smart Agriculture in Asia, convened by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. They showed that significant progress is already underway.

For example, scientists with the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) have isolated a gene in a rice variety grown in India that enables the plants to survive being submerged in floodwaters for up to more than two weeks. Plant breeders have now endowed rice varieties across the region with this trait, creating local versions of so-called “scuba rice” that offer a bountiful harvest in situations that would otherwise be devastating.

At the other end of the spectrum, researchers are developing and will make widely available rice varieties that can survive drought conditions. They are also making major advances in developing varieties that can tolerate salty soils.

These are impressive advances, but many more will be needed. Boosting production in the midst of radically altered growing conditions and doing so in a sustainable way will require a commitment to supporting research into climate-smart agriculture and to ensuring the fruits of this work move quickly to the farm.

The Commission recently prepared a report laying out in stark terms the problems confronting agriculture and calling for specific investments in research and policy changes that will be critical to avoiding an unpleasant future of climate-induced crises. At the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit, we will convince governments to make clearer and stronger commitments to sustainable, climate-smart agriculture intensification.

Across Asia, we are blessed with some of the world’s most fertile lands and, in agriculture, some of the world’s most fertile minds, as well. For example, I have watched with great pride as, over the last few decades, Vietnam has switched from being a country suffering frequent food deficits to becoming the world’s second largest rice exporter. We accomplished this turn-around because we embraced innovation.

Across Asia, at the close of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st, countries in this region have consistently exceeded expectations for resourcefulness. Once best known for poverty and conflict, much of Asia is now best known as a region that has boldly and rapidly achieved stunning economic and technological advances. I am confident that in this new era of climate-smart agriculture, our farmers and our scientists will show the world how to take care of our people while taking equally good care of our planet.

(Dr. Nguyen Van Bo is chief of the Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Science and a member of the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change. Read the Commission’s recommendations: Achieving Food Security in the Face of Climate Change at www.ccafs.cgiar.org/commission)