Pooled knowledge key to food security

Bright gathering: The Group on Earth Observations meeting in Geneva is full of innovative people and tools, including this colour-coded display of the temperature of various ocean currents.
By Andy McElroy

GENEVA, 14 January 2014 – More than 100 of the world’s leading food system researchers, practitioners and policymakers heard today how dynamic new approaches are strengthening risk management and resilience.

The forum, titled ‘Visualising the World’s Food Systems to Better Manage Risk and Resilience’, was told that ‘the new normal’ of fast-accelerating demand for food, energy and water in a changing climate and era of volatility had potentially devastating human and environmental consequences.

As the global population grows from 7 billion to almost 9 billion by 2040, and the number of middle-class consumers increases by 3 billion over the next 20 years, the demand for resources will rise exponentially.

By 2030, the world will need at least 50 per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water, all at a time when environmental boundaries are throwing up new limits to supply. This is true not least for climate change, which affects all aspects of human and planetary health.

“In the midst of this uncertainty, policy makers, vulnerable populations, private sector and other influential stakeholders working at various scales will frequently find themselves forced to make difficult decisions in relation to food security that will have significant local and global impacts,” event organizer Prof Molly Jahn, of the University of Wisconsin, said in her overview.

However, speaker after speaker emphasized that this immense challenge could be addressed in a sustainable way. Mr Mike Grundy, of the Australia and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, said “a deeper and smarter level of collaboration between different sets of skill clusters” was the key.

Mr Bob Chen, of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, urged the pooling of collective knowledge “to improve and optimize decisions in our very constrained set of circumstances”.

Mr Bram Govaerts, of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, observed that if it was possible to buy a cold can of soft drink from a vending machine in a remote village it was certainly possible to bridge the “big gap” of using the vast array of technology available in a way that helps a farmer on their small, rural holding.

Motivating people on the ground level to improve data was vital, Mr Michael Obersteiner, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis said. “Is the quality of the data good enough to assess impact of policy? Often the answer is no. It is quite sad that in the 21st century we are still living in an era of data paucity.”

Mr Rowan Douglas, the head of Capital Science and Policy Practice at Willis Group, who is also a member of UNISDR’s Private Sector Advisory Group, reached for a historical metaphor, likening the current ‘remarkable’ growth of risk modeling and networking as a second Romantic Era that will reconnect mankind to nature in a more harmonious way and in so doing strengthen global resilience.

The Willis Group was a principal sponsor of the side event, which took place at the Tenth Plenary Session of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO14 X Plenary and Ministerial Summit and Exhibition), in Geneva.
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