The transition to a global food system that satisfies human needs, reduces its carbon footprint, adapts to climate change and is in balance with planetary resources requires concrete and coordinated actions, implemented at scale, simultaneously and with urgency. In February 2011 the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change was convened to identify critical leverage points and practical policy actions to be undertaken by key stakeholders and institutions in pursuit of food security in the context of climate change. Drawing on a review of recent major assessment reports, expert consultation and their own knowledge, the Commissioners proposed seven areas for policy action to achieve food security in the face of climate change . For each of these seven recommended policy actions, we now identify relevant contributions needed from the scientific community.
1. Integrate food security and sustainable agriculture into global and national policies
As a first step to inclusion of agriculture in the mainstream of international climate change policy, negotiators should establish a work program on mitigation and adaptation in agriculture under the UNFCCC. Similarly, country representatives to global policy processes should integrate sustainable, climate-friendly agriculture into ‘early action’ climate finance schemes. To enable coherent dialogue and policy action related to climate change, agriculture, crisis response and food security, at global, regional and national levels, governments and global donors should develop common platforms at global, regional and national levels.
The global food system is managed through a complex mix of public and private-sector action, across local to global scales. Collectively, the policy choices within national governments, United Nations bodies, global treaties and conventions, regional economic communities, political forums (for example, G8, G20) and standard-setting bodies shape the way food is produced, distributed and consumed. The scientific evidence base is an essential foundation for public policies and programs as well as for systems of market and industry governance and of civil society influence and agenda setting.
Global climate change policy is a critical arena for solidifying international support for sustainable agriculture development programs that adapt to and mitigate against climate change. National climate change action plans can also usefully integrate the agriculture sector in country-specific ways. Without a global commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including agriculture, no amount of agricultural adaptation will be sufficient under the destabilized climate of the future .
The scientific community can support evidence-based policy-making by quantifying vulnerability of agriculture to climate change and forecasting outcomes under a broad range of potential mechanisms for agricultural adaptation and mitigation. By working across disciplinary boundaries, researchers can develop a pragmatic, multi-disciplinary understanding of what it means to reduce poverty and food insecurity within the context of the planet’s boundaries. Scientists can help to mobilize increased investment by detailing how multiple benefits can be achieved through sustainable farming practices and by clarifying geographic and sectoral potential for greenhouse gas mitigation.
2. Significantly raise the level of global investment in sustainable agriculture and food systems in the next decade
Donor governments should implement and strengthen the G8 L’Aquila commitments to sustainable agriculture and food security and enable UNFCCC Fast Start funding, major development banks and other global finance mechanisms to prioritize sustainable agriculture programs that improve infrastructure and rehabilitate land. To reflect the significance of sustainable agriculture in economic growth, poverty reduction and long-term environmental sustainability, governments should increase national research and development budgets, build integrated scientific capacity and support revitalized extension services, technology transfer and communities of practice to increase knowledge of best practices and access to innovation.
By demonstrating the outcomes of alternative farming practices in different regions, farming systems and landscapes and by clarifying the conditions under which local agricultural production systems integrate innovative technologies or approaches, researchers can help to effectively direct investments in agriculture . For example, in the Cerrado region of Brazil, public-sector investment in agricultural research combined with producer innovation has been credited with dramatic gains in productivity and livelihoods despite low natural soil fertility .
3. Sustainably intensify agricultural production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts of agriculture
To enable more productive and resilient livelihoods and ecosystems, with emphasis on closing yield gaps and improving nutrition, multi-benefit farming systems should be developed and rewarded. This includes introducing strategies for minimizing ecosystem degradation and rehabilitating degraded environments, with emphasis on community-designed programs. To empower marginalized food producers and increase crop productivity, improvements are needed in land and water rights, access to markets, finance and insurance, and local capacity . Subsidies that provide incentives for farmers to deplete water supplies or destroy native ecosystems should be modified . To prevent further loss of forests, wetlands and grasslands, the economic incentives for sustainable intensification of agriculture should be coupled with stronger governance of land tenure and land zoning .
There is great variety in the pattern of agricultural productivity and land use in different regions. For example, cereal yields in Asia in 2001 were 240% higher than they were in 1961 with minimal change in land use (that is, increased production per unit land area), while in the same period in sub-Saharan Africa land use increased by 80% with only moderate increase in cereal yields . Strategic investments can make an important difference. The agricultural potential in Africa is substantial and existing technologies can be used to create the necessary transformations in increasing productivity.
Through international, regional, national and local collaborations, researchers have a critical role to play in defining the practical meaning of sustainable intensification and elucidating forms of low-emissions agriculture that support long-term productivity and resilience (that is, decoupling increase in yield from emissions). There is a wide array of opportunities to investigate the suitability of sustainable agricultural practices (for example, diversified rotations, agro-ecological processes, improved nutrient and water-use efficiency, agroforestry, minimum tillage) in different regions and farming systems. To boost productivity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, greater global coordination on research and implementation is needed . Some promising areas include improved breeding and input for crops, livestock and aquatic organisms, diversification of agricultural systems (for example, agroforestry), soil management to sequester carbon and resource-efficient practices for crop production. To promote public trust and inform debate on new advances, scientists must become adept at articulating the benefits and dangers of new technologies in an open and transparent way.
4. Develop specific programs and policies to assist populations and sectors that are most vulnerable to climate changes and food insecurity
To provide rapid relief when extreme weather events affect communities, funds that respond to climate shocks should be developed (for example, index-linked funds) . To moderate excessive food price fluctuations by promoting open and responsive trade systems, country information on production forecasts and stocks should be shared, and early warning systems should be established . Safety nets and other programs to help vulnerable populations become food secure can include cash and in-kind transfers, employment guarantee schemes and education. Humanitarian responses to vulnerable populations threatened by food crises should be rapidly delivered through robust emergency food reserves. Global donor programs, policies and activities should be harmonized, paying particular attention to systematically integrating climate change risk management, adaptation and mitigation co-benefits, and improved local nutritional outcomes .
Key areas for multidisciplinary research include clarifying how index-linked funds can best reduce impacts on climate-affected populations (that is, increased hunger and poverty, lost productivity), investigating the criteria and optimal design for effective food reserves and understanding the drivers of food crises to improve targeting of fiscal responses. Research initiatives may be directed toward local-level strategies for risk management, preparedness, institutional capacity-building and household and community food systems.
5. Reshape food access and consumption patterns to ensure basic nutritional needs are met and to foster healthy and sustainable eating patterns worldwide
Chronic undernutrition and hunger should be addressed by harmonizing development policy and coordinating regional programs to improve livelihoods and access to services among food-insecure rural and urban communities. Positive changes in the variety and quantity of diets should be promoted through innovative education campaigns and through economic incentives that align the marketing practices of retailers and processors with public health and environmental goals . A coherent set of evidence-based sustainability metrics and standards should be developed to monitor and evaluate food security, nutrition, health, agricultural productivity and efficiency, resource use and environmental impacts, and food system costs and benefits.
The research community can deliver better knowledge about the variety of food combinations that can deliver a nutritionally appropriate and environmentally low-impact diet. To improve overall food supply, scientists should investigate opportunities to improve agricultural productivity and resilience to climate change through effective deployment of existing and new technologies for producing, processing and distributing food. Research is needed to understand the impact and cost-effectiveness of a range of interventions on dietary behavior among different socioeconomic groups . The toolbox for promoting sustainable diets includes economic interventions (for example, taxation of specific food types), retailers’ purchasing guidelines (for example, to restrict consumer choices), public education campaigns (for example, advertising and programs in schools and workplaces) and labeling .
6. Reduce loss and waste in food systems, targeting infrastructure, farming practices, processing, distribution and household habits
In all sustainable agriculture development programs, research and investment components focusing on reducing waste, from production to consumption, by improving harvest and postharvest management and food storage and transport should be included. Integrated policies and programs should be developed to reduce waste in food supply chains (for example, economic innovation to enable low-income producers to store food during periods of excess supply). Dialog and working partnerships across food supply chains (producers, processors, retailers, consumers, regulators and researchers) can help to ensure that interventions to reduce waste are effective and efficient (for example, redirecting food waste to other purposes), and do not create perverse incentives.
Research and innovation will be needed to improve understanding of the causes of food loss and waste and support experimentation with reduction strategies . This should include development of effective technological advancements in production, harvesting, and postharvest handling systems, drawing on expertise across plant biology, engineering, agricultural economics, food processing, nutrition, food safety and environmental conservation. Agencies and organizations that fund food systems research should prioritize work on optimizing yield, nutritional quality and postharvest life as well as characterizing the sociological dimensions of food consumption in different cultural and economic settings, including home food management, which is important for designing effective education campaigns . There is a range of opportunities for reducing consumer and food service sector waste in middle-income and high-income countries using public campaigns, advertising, taxes, regulation, purchasing guidelines and improved labeling [1, 12]. Raising awareness of food waste and promoting the use of efficiency strategies among food businesses, retailers and consumers will probably need to be targeted at specific economic and cultural characteristics .
7. Create comprehensive, shared, integrated information systems that encompass human and ecological dimensions
Increased, sustained investment in regular monitoring, on the ground and by public-domain remote-sensing networks, is essential to track changes in land use, food production, climate, the environment, human health and well-being worldwide. Spatially explicit data and decision-support systems that integrate biophysical and socioeconomic information and that enable policy-makers to navigate tradeoffs among agricultural intensification, nutritional security and environmental consequences should be developed, validated and implemented. To address food price volatility, improved transparency and access to information in global food markets as well as investment in interlinked information systems are needed .
The threats posed by climate change to food supplies and livelihoods are likely to be spatially variable. We will need to identify global hotspots where the threats are greatest and to develop specific, practical interventions to boost resilience in these areas. We also need a more robust understanding of our dynamic and increasingly globalized food system if we are to make headway on moderating food price volatility and increasing overall efficiency of the food system. From 1961 to 2003, world food trade increased from 1,500 Gkcal/day to >7,000 Gkcal/day . There is growing integration of global supply chains and the emergence of large economies like Brazil, China and India as major sources of both demand and supply of agricultural products. In many low-income countries, rural and urban areas are ever more interconnected  although imperfect connectivity between global and domestic markets inhibits price transmission across global, national and local markets .
Scientists are integral to the development of a global system of repeated observations of ecological and human systems with key roles in advancing technical capabilities for monitoring and streamlining remote-sensing data to user communities. Working with governments, researchers should engage stakeholders to design and create novel frameworks that assimilate existing information assets (for example, farmer knowledge, spatial data) and incorporate them into decision-making pathways. Multidisciplinary research effort is needed to characterize the interactive drivers of food price spikes and the effectiveness of possible interventions.
Research activity is needed in a diverse set of areas to improve understanding of agriculture’s vulnerability to climate change, food price dynamics, food waste and consumption patterns and monitoring technologies as well as multidisciplinary investigation of regionally appropriate responses to climate change and food security challenges. Making these changes, although technically feasible, requires urgent, collective and substantially increased action internationally, nationally and locally.