What will a changing climate mean for the future of agriculture, and critically, for the 500 million smallholder farming families who depend on agricultural production for their livelihoods? This urgent question was the focus of a recent dialog hosted by the Met Office and the UK Pavilion at the world fair in Milan. The panel brought together representatives from Kew Gardens, the World Food Programme, the UK FCO and CABI’s own Shaun Hobbs, Global Director of the Plantwise Knowledge Bank. Participants in the audience heard presentations which reinforced the need for innovation and collaboration to secure sustainable food systems as we head into an increasingly variable climate in the future. It was made clear that reduced risk for farmers will only be found through continued research and implementation of solutions at international, national and community level. The key is creating and sharing knowledge.
Aaron Davis of Kew Gardens presented a case study of predictive crop-weather response modelling in Ethiopia, where an estimated 15 million people depend on coffee to support their families. Coffee- the second largest trade commodity after oil- is highly susceptible even today to warmer and drier weather being seen now in the country, as research shows. Being able to accurately predict where and when coffee will be able to grow, as the project has tested, will be critical information to policy makers and farmers alike. “You need data and data sharing,” said Mr Davis. “Freely available data can act as the early warning system we need to prevent crop loss.”
As weather fluctuates, farmers also face challenges from new and emerging pests and diseases which can decrease yields and even destroy entire crops, as highlighted by the presentation by Shaun Hobbs from CABI. Each year an average of 30-40% of crops are lost due to plant health problems. The Plantwise knowledge bank, which works with countries to record information from local plant clinics where farmers come for advice on sick crops, produces data that can inform timely response and research on new pest threats. “The most effective pest management needs effective weather information to save farmers time and costs.” Already over 100,000 records collected and a free database with actionable knowledge on 2,500 pests has been created by the CABI-led Plantwise programme.
Climate change science also offers the possibility of earning warning and mitigation of negative effects on rural livelihoods. Working together, the World Food Programme and the Met Office have developed a global hunger index which maps areas of high-risk for food insecurity into the future- information which lends itself to programmes like new insurance schemes to protect farmers when countries foresee times of crop stress due to drought.
The Expo event was part of the GREAT Week focused on Agritech focused on many other innovations in the field of technology and agriculture. Plantwise has also encouraged Expo visitors and people around the world to learn more about challenges and innovations in agriculture through the Plant Doctor Game – a new awareness tool and app that aims to bring climate smart food security issues to the forefront.