In November, some of the world's most influential people will converge to Bonn to determine the future of our planet. The climate change agenda they will draft is destined to change all our lives, hopefully for the better. But I have a wish for all the key players sitting around the COP23 table, please do not forget the most important and primordial base of our existence: agriculture.
We are a civilization thanks to agriculture, and it is agriculture that will drive us out of the sad times in which our civilization finds itself today. In 1970, the Nobel Foundation awarded the Peace Prize to Dr Norman Borlaug, a pioneer wheat breeder who is considered to have saved over one billion lives thanks to his research vision.
In his acceptance speech he declared: "I want to devote my remarks to commendation of the Nobel Committee which had the perspicacity and wisdom to recognize the actual and potential contributions of agricultural production to prosperity and peace among the nations and peoples of the world". Unfortunately, since his time the agriculture research agenda has suffered, deprived of the essential funding to drive his vision forward.
Let me share with you some insight into how agricultural research could change our world.
November will also represent the month when most of the farmers of the Northern Hemisphere will fire up their carbon emitting tractors and start sowing their fields. It is ironic to think how the two events are so surprisingly opposite and yet interconnected.
Firing up the carbon emitting tractor. Credit: author'sown
In fact, agriculture is first and foremost the most affected practice by the changing climates, due to the measurable increase of extended droughts and unseasonable heat waves that have devastated crops worldwide. Further, agriculture accounts for 1/3 of the carbon released in the atmosphere, but also the 1.6 billion hectares sown each year remove huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the process of plants respiration and conversion to organic carbon, which we ultimately eat as food.
Drought and heat waves have devastated this farmer's field in Mauritania. Credit: author's own
Even though the total amount of carbon that is sequestered by agriculture is extremely challenging to measure, as each unique soil, crop, and climate would cause this value to change, many scientific articles suggest that the amount sequestered might be higher than the amount released, if the right practices are applied. The team of Gan et al. published in the prestigious magazine Nature that up to 256 Kg equivalent of Carbon could be sequestered (instead of emitted) in each hectare cultivated in Canada if the right farming practices were to be followed. Moreover, these practices are quite simple and have also resulted in a substantial gain in productivity by simply using the right seed varieties, the right crop rotation, and applying fertilizer based on soil analysis.
Experimental filed trials of wheat in Morocco with green plants breathing and fixing carbon from the atmosphere. Credit: author's own
Now imagine multiplying this 256 Kg of sequestered carbon by the nearly 2 billion hectares of agriculture Worldwide. In fact, many researchers, including myself, believe the value proposed by Gan's team is too conservative. The application of both breeding and conservation agriculture targeted to reducing carbon in the atmosphere could easily reach over 600 Kg of sequestered carbon per hectare. Better yet, this could be achieved by actually increasing the yields in farmers' fields. Ultimately the human population is soaring in numbers and an increase in productivity is the sole driver to prevent severe famine and deriving social unrest. So it represents an ideal win-win situation, where the increase in food would be actually met by a reduction in atmospheric carbon.
I know it can appear boring and tedious to invest year after year on a research agenda that will deliver measurable results only 10-20 years later. But trust me when I say that the scientists around the world have the answers to the many challenges we are facing, just not the means to make it a reality. Include in your agenda good financial support to basic agricultural research and be prepared to be amazed at what good minds can deliver with good funding. I wish you all a prosperous and inspired COP23.