Q&A: FAO Focus on Climate Smart Agriculture

Q&A: FAO Focus on Climate Smart Agriculture

December 8, 2015
Climate Change 

The UN’s approach to tackling food security and climate change is “climate smart agriculture”. Ahead of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) we spoke to Dr. Martin Frick, director of Climate, Energy and Tenure at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to find out more.

How does climate change impact farmers?

We have extreme weather events and they are very visible and don’t need to be explained – if you have a hurricane, it’s straightforward – but there is also a silent set of threats. Crops rely on a very narrow climate corridor in order to grow. They need cooler temperatures at certain times, and warmer temperatures at other times.  They need rainfall to grow, but farmers need drier weather during harvesting. Specific things such as changes in nighttime temperatures have an extreme impact on the yields and nutritional value of crops.

Who suffers most from these changes? 

Most of the 800 million people that FAO estimates go hungry every day are subsistence farmers and they are hardest hit by climate change.

What is “climate smart agriculture” and how can it help?

If we want to eradicate poverty and fight climate change at the same time, the point of convergence is agriculture. Climate smart agriculture is an approach developed by the FAO. It’s a holistic way of looking at agriculture and the food production system. How can you get the outputs you want while respecting and safeguarding the natural environment and biodiversity, as well as ensuring no unnecessary carbon emissions from agriculture?

For a subsistence farmer in sub-Saharan Africa, everything that she knows is traditional knowledge handed over from generations about the onset of rainfall and the seasons. These farmers are lacking information. They are lacking adapted seeds. They are lacking, at times, irrigation systems. Climate smart agriculture is a huge challenge, particularly for the world’s poorest people.

To help, we have set up a Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture which is a multi-stakeholder platform to discuss climate issues. The FAO hosts the secretariat of the alliance, but it’s ultimately held in the hands of all 101 stakeholders. The FAO’s role is to support it with knowledge. 

How can plant technologies help combat climate change?

Preserving the genetic variability in seed banks is a very powerful tool. Just recently, Peru retrieved a traditional seed from a seed bank that is very good at growing in high altitudes. We have to look for and maintain the genetic diversity of plants and animals on this planet and breed for the most adapted species. For example, there are plant varieties more resistant to higher contents of salt in ground water. There are also varieties more adapted to long droughts. When facing climate change, both in adaptation and mitigation, we need to pull out all the stops.

What is the FAO’s overall approach to partnerships with the private sector?

The FAO is, of course, interested in partnerships. As part of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, for example, there is one action group on financing and private sector involvement. To come up with an effective response to climate change you have to break down silos and to combine areas of knowledge that you didn’t combine before. Working with the private sector to develop more adapted methodologies, to bring some of the things we have in developed countries to boost our productivity, in a sustainable way, in developing countries would be very welcome. We would be happy at FAO to help broker partnerships to the benefit people and to fight hunger. 

Do you think the COP21 climate change talks in Paris will spark real progress?

I’ve been working in climate change since 2007 and we wasted decades on the questions of whether climate change is happening and man-made or not. I was at the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen and saw it falling apart. But today, I see a firm commitment. We are not there yet, but Paris might be the moment when we make the difference.