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Feeding The World Gets Short Shrift In Climate Change Debate

Food is getting elbowed out of the discussion on climate change, which could spell disaster for the 1 billion people who will be added to the world's population in the next 15 years. That's the word today from scientists wondering why food and sustainability get such short shrift when it comes to thinking about how humans will adapt to climate change.

In the past year, we've seen drought in Texas, floods in Australia and massive drought and wildfires in Russia, all of which have had a big impact on global food supply and prices. Those are good examples of the extreme weather events and changes in weather patterns that scientists expect to see with climate change.

"Agriculture is going to be a critically important part of the conversation," says Molly Jahn, a professor of genetics and agronomy at the University of Wisconsin who works on agriculture's impact on climate change. "We rely on agriculture to to feed ourselves. And we know that agriculture is and can be a better form of planetary care, particularly when in management of greenhouse gas emissions."

Last month, when nations met at the United Nations-sponsored climate change meeting in South Africa, the bulk of the effort went into trying to come up with a plan to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. But the many questions surrounding how agriculture and food production will adapt to climate change were left largely unanswered.

Why is it so hard to get traction on food security? You'd think that the threat of starvation would be motivating. In today's issue of the journal Science, Jahn and other scientists involved in the discussions spell out why.

Reasons include the need to pour a lot of energy into hammering out a global pact to reduce greenhouse gases; the fact that developing countries are leery of any agreements that could limit their ability to convert forests to agriculture; and a schism between high-income and low-income countries, with developed countries pushing to put efforts into mitigation, while developing nations favor adaptation programs. Then there's the question of who will pay.

But that's not to say that good things aren't happening. The authors cite one example: an agroforestry project in Niger that's increased grain production and improved the livelihoods of more than 1 million households. Agroforestry mixes crops and livestock with trees and shrubs. Trees that increase nitrogen levels in soil are planted next to corn crops in Africa, for instance, more than doubling corn yield. The practice can also reduce erosion and deforestation. (Here's an NPR report on efforts to grow cacao plants in the Brazilian rainforest.)

These sorts of sustainable agricultural practices could reduce the impacts of climate change, the Science authors say, both by assuring access to food and by reducing agriculture's contribution to greenhouse gases and environmental degradation.

"There's a great deal we can do at the landscape scale, and the local scale," Jahn says. But she thinks that has to be matched by big, innovative global efforts with enough muscle to meet the immensity of the challenge.

For more on how climate change may make it harder to feed the world, check out this recent discussion on Science Friday.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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