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Our complex food future and how to respond

Today’s global challenges will significantly affect how we grow our food. But these challenges are so complex and intertwined that response measures require collaboration and a broad, integrated lens.

Many researchers agree that climate change will cause more droughts in some regions, and floods in others. These changes will be bad news for farmers everywhere — right? Not necessarily, says new research out of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. There's actually a lot more to consider if we want to respond effectively to global challenges scuh as climate change.

"How climate change will affect communities depends a lot on other factors — like food prices," says John Reilly, co-director of the joint program, and the author of new research released this month in the Handbook on Climate Change and Agriculture.

Reilly's example, a chapter within the Handbook, centers on food prices and trade. Because food products are the most internationally traded commodity, and climate change is a global challenge, climate change won't have a straight cause and effect impact on food. Instead, its effect could be the opposite of what one might think, Reilly's research shows.

Environmental factors — droughts, floods, etc. — will have a negative effect on agriculture in some places, causing crop yields to be smaller than average. When there is less of a product, there is a greater demand, and prices rise. These higher prices will benefit farmers and exporting countries, but will hurt importing countries. So, agricultural losses bring economic gains to some.

The opposite may also occur. Climate change may have a positive effect on some regions, as some need the extra rain or a longer growing season for crops to flourish. With a more successful growing season and a plentiful supply, food prices would fall. Cheaper prices will be good for consumers in importing countries, but farmers and exporting countries will be receiving less money for the products they grow — a prosperous growing season brings a hit on their wallets.

"Supply and demand causes this reverse effect," Reilly says. "This relationship demonstrates that, when it comes to responding to the global challenges before us today, we need to take a broader view and consider not just how a region will respond to these changes, but also how other factors will come into play and what steps we need to take to balance these factors."

Adapting to change

Each year farmers make decisions: Should I use a new seed variety? Do I need new equipment? Policymakers also make decisions: How should crop insurance be formulated? Do food assistance programs need to change?

"Too often these decisions are made in one sphere with a set of limited facts, and projections that could influence these decisions are made in a separate sphere," Reilly says. "Along with taking a broad look at global challenges, we need to make projections useful in the short term and integrate our knowledge into the process so policymakers and stakeholders are able to make more informed decisions."

Reilly again uses the example from his research regarding trade and food prices. He says that whether or not adaptation measures make economic sense in a region depends on the global agricultural markets. If prices rise, it makes sense to add an irrigation system to improve crop yields. If prices fall, a region might decide it is no longer economical to invest in adaptation measures, even though it might allow the area to sustain agricultural production.

Adaptation strategies also work better in some areas, showing how important it is to not only measure how the Earth and human systems respond to climate change, but also how they respond to adaptation measures.

There are other factors to consider as well. For example, as populations increase across the globe, energy demand will rise, creating a competition for land to be used for things such as biofuels. Some researchers have found that biofuels, which prosper from long growing seasons and are not as sensitive to heat, might do well in tropical areas. But these regions would then likely need to import food.

These are the types of broad and integrated analyses that Reilly says would benefit policymakers and the international food industry.

"Figuring out what decision-makers and stakeholders need to know today to effectively prepare for tomorrow's challenges requires collaboration and integration," Reilly says. "That is especially true when we consider our food future."

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