CIMMYT joins global efforts to curb greenhouse emissions and strengthen food systems – CIMMYT

The 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28) was held from November 30 to December 12, 2023 in Dubai, UAE. A crucial moment came after the conference ended 600 million people face chronic hunger, and global temperatures continue to rise at alarming rates. CIMMYT researchers advocated for agriculture's mitigating role in climate change, increasing crop diversity and taking action to bring the principles of sustainable and regenerative agricultural production systems to a greater number of farmers.

To directly address the needs of farmers, CIMMYT proposed to develop an improved data management system, training and protocols. Its outcomes include better productivity and environmental quality, economic viability, social inclusion and nutritional security.

CIMMYT has shown that during periods of fertilizer scarcity, targeting nitrogen supplies to farms from inorganic and organic sources can improve nitrogen-use efficiency and help sustain crop yields while limiting the harms of excess fertilizer use. By examining how food production drives climate change, CIMMYT promotes ways to mitigate climate shocks, particularly for smallholder farmers, including the impacts of climate change, rising temperatures and extended droughts. Improved, climate-tolerant crop varieties constitute an important adaptation. Increasing farmer productivity and profitability is an important part of improving rural livelihoods in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

When asked about CIMMYT's contribution to COP 28, Bram Govaerts, Director General of CIMMYT, highlighted the inclusion of agriculture. COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action An initiative supported by CIMMYT by advocating with leaders and government officials as part of various potential solutions to climate change.

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„Our participation addressed some of the pressure points that led to this significant recognition. It further clarified our role as an active contributor to the debate surrounding the future of food and crop science,” Gowerts said.

Opens up the possibilities of crop genetic diversity

„The diversity stored in today's gene banks has the potential to unlock genes that can withstand drought and warmer temperatures,” Sarah Hearn, director of genetic resources at CIMMYT, said at a side event: Crop diversity for climate change adaptation and mitigation contributes to a resilient and nature-positive future for global farmers.

Sarah Hearn presents the potential of crop diversity to help combat climate change impacts on agri-food systems. (Photo: Food Pavilion/COP 28)

Hearn explained the process of characterizing plant DNA to identify better, climate-adapted breeding traits. This classification system opens the door to genetic modeling that can predict key traits for tomorrow's climate and environmental conditions.

„Our thinking needs to shift from thinking about gene banks to banks of genes, creating vibrant gene collections for humanity, opening up genetic insurance to farmers,” Hearn said.

Working towards a food system that works for the environment

With increased pressure on food production, sustainability becomes critical for long-term human and environmental health. CIMMYT's Agricultural Systems and Climate Change Senior Scientists Sarah Hearn and Tech Subkota participated in a panel discussion: Responsible consumption and sustainable production: Pathways to climate-friendly food systems. They shared how genetic discovery and advances in fertilizer use can contribute to sustainable consumption and a resilient food system.

Fertilizer use is highly skewed, with some regions using more fertilizers than needed, while others, such as sub-Saharan Africa, lack adequate access, resulting in low crop yields. However, to achieve greater food security, the global South needs to produce more food. For that, more fertilizers should be used. Companies cannot ask small farmers not to increase fertilizer use because increased fertilizer use increases emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Emissions of GHGs with additional fertilizer use in low-input areas can be balanced by improving nutrient-use efficiency (NUE) in high-output areas, thereby reducing emissions of GHGs. This could increase global food production by ca 30% at current fertilizer consumption levels.

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Tech Subcode talks about how sustainable and efficient fertilizer use can contribute to a resilient food system. (Photo: Food Pavilion/COP 28)

„This issue needs to be considered through a holistic lens. We need to scale up already proven technologies using digital extensions and living labs and connect farmers to markets,” said Sapkoda.

On breeding climate-tolerant seeds, Hearn highlighted whether farmers are accepting new seeds and how to ensure their maximum adoption. Hearn described the partnership with CGIAR and NARS and several technologies that respond to local needs such as selection for superior breeding traits, consideration of shortened breeding cycles, tolerance to heat or flooding, and heritage preferences.

Drought-tolerant maize developed by CIMMYT and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has benefited more than 8 million households in sub-Saharan Africa, demonstrating the growing adoption of improved seeds by farmers. „With better selection of suitable traits, we can further develop and distribute without yield penalty,” Hearn said.

Regenerative and Agroecological Production Systems

Researchers have studied regeneration and agricultural production systems for decades, with new and old research informing current debates. These systems restore and maintain ecosystems, improve resource use efficiency, strengthen resilience and increase self-sufficiency. In his keynote presentation, Sapkoda presented 3 examples of regenerative agriculture and agroecological systems: conservation agriculture, cropping diversification and site-specific nutrient management and their impact on food production, climate change adaptation and mitigation.

„As science continues to evolve, digital capacity must be harnessed to create sustainable solutions with local, indigenous knowledge,” said Sapkoda. „We must continue research and innovation in cutting-edge science and technology, and invest in knowledge-sharing networks to spread access to this research; communication is fundamental to further adoption of these practices.”

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