Ep5: Feeding the World in a Climate Change Future
We've all got to eat. And climate change is throwing us new challenges as to how to feed a global population that's getting bigger, more urban, and more affluent — and make sure the world's poorest have enough nutritious food too.
This would have been a challenge without climate change. With it, farmers need to adapt to wilder weather, less predictable rainfall, and shifting growing zones that sometimes mean they can't plant what they long did, and have to find new crops that are resilient to the new normal.
Meanwhile, efforts are afoot to cut emissions that agriculture itself contributes to climate change.
In this episode, breaking down this complex set of issues in simple terms, with on-the-ground knowledge are:
Channing Arndt, director of the environment, production, technology division at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Dawit Mekonnen, research fellow in Ethiopia for the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Click below to see the full episode transcript:
COAL+ICE Podcast, Episode 5: Feeding the World in a Climate Change Future
March 22, 2022
00:00: Mary Kay Magistad: So here’s a good news, bad news kind of thing.
The good news is -- the world’s middle class is growing. More people are living more comfortable lives – earning more, spending more, eating better, getting the comforts and conveniences many of us take for granted – air conditioning, central heating, appliances, computers, cars, air travel. Right now, that’s especially happening in Asia, but it’s also expected to happen more and more in Africa, over the next few decades.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is – all this is happening as the effects of climate change accelerate, and some of these new demands could accelerate climate change further and faster – unless we think and act creatively now to shape a more sustainable future.
This episode is one of two that focus on that challenge. The next one is on how to make cities more climate-friendly – since most of the world’s population now lives in cities, and more are coming in. This episode – is about how to feed the world, and protect the planet – at the same time.
1:20: This is the COAL+ICE Podcast. I’m Mary Kay Magistad.
COAL+ICE is an immersive multimedia exhibition on climate change, by Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, now at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, until Earth Day – April 22nd. Its dramatic images show the causes and effects of climate change – coal and fossil fuel use leading to the melting of polar ice and glaciers, warming temperatures, more droughts and floods and wilder weather.
We’re all living with that. But some people are in closer touch with those changes than others.
2:00: Dawit Mekonnen: And especially when your life depends on it, you pay attention to it.
Mary Kay Magistad: This is Dawit Mekonnen, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. He’s from and is working in, Ethiopia – and seeing how Ethiopian farmers are coping with climate change on the ground.
2:15: Dawit Mekonnen: Obviously they may not link it to greenhouse gas emissions, but they know that things are changing. They know that they need to adapt. They should cope with the impacts of climate change.
2:30: Mary Kay Magistad: I’m going to come back to Dawit – not just because he’s smart, and insightful about how to make sure Ethiopians have enough to eat in the middle of climate change – but also, because Ethiopia – with its long history of drought and famines. More recently, it’s had decades of Africa’s fastest economic growth. But now, with its current civil war in Tigray, hundreds of thousands of people have again gone hungry. Ethiopia shows what a difference both the right moves, and the wrong ones, can make to people’s ability to survive whatever comes.
But let’s start with a bigger picture – a global picture. And for this, I’m joined by one of Dawit’s colleagues.
3:07: Channing Arndt: I’m Channing Arndt, and I'm the director of the environment, production, technology division at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
3:17: Mary Kay Magistad: Channing is an economist by training. And he’s now focused on a couple of big questions, among others: how are we going enough food for a global population that’s growing, with growing expectations for more and better food, while climate change raises the degree of difficulty? And how, at the same time, can we reduce how much agriculture itself contributes to climate change?
3:38: Channing Arndt: Agriculture, forestry and other land use is around 21% of total emissions, and it's not going down. I would put that category as a good dozen years behind the electricity sector. And we're missing quite a lot.
3:55: Mary Kay Magistad: These emissions in agriculture come from tilling soil, from belching cattle, and more. Luckily, there are fixes for much of that – like changing the way rice is grown in much of Asia and the world, to shift from wet paddies, to dry cropping, or at least alternating wet and dry fields, to cut way down on methane emissions. More on that in a moment. For now, just chew on the fact that the sector of agriculture, forestry and other land use, globally, contributes almost as much climate change-causing emissions, worldwide, as electricity. Keep that in mind as we think about how to avoid an even more rapidly warming planet that could make living on earth a whole lot more difficult – we as a global population are supposed to get to net zero emissions by 2050.
4:43: Channing Arndt: So when we say net zero by 2050, what do we mean? Well, it means that actually we don't believe that every single sector is going to go to zero by 2050. That's what we don't believe. And so to get to zero, some sectors have to go negative. And so we've just done an assessment of all the technologies that are out there. And there are people who are working on basically machines that pull carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases out of the air. But they are expensive and very small scale at this point. The only thing that really pulls substantial amounts of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere is photosynthesis. That's it. I think that’s the big challenge is getting adequate forestry and other land use into gear.
5:40: Mary Kay Magistad: So this is at a moment when there's deliberate burning, clearing of the Amazon rainforest, to the extent that by some estimates it's becoming a source of increased carbon in the atmosphere rather than a sink. What effective steps can be taken to move us to having more forests, and ground cover and whatever else -- seaweed in the oceans that, I know, one of the projects is being undertaken to increase photosynthesis -- that could get us where we need to be?
6:10: Channing Arndt: The most recent estimates show that over the last 20 years or so, crop land area globally went up by about 9%. And it’s almost – it’s all in the developing world, and heavily in Africa and Latin America.
6:21: Mary Kay Magistad: But a lot of that then gets sent to wealthier countries, right, like China, the United States?
6:25: Channing Arndt: So this is an a linked food system. So what we're talking about is we want to prevent that growth in land from happening. And at the same time, we recognize we’re going to go from almost 8 billion people to almost 10 billion people. And many of these people are about to get wealthier, which means they're about to eat more. This means we’re going to have to produce more food.
6:55: Mary Kay Magistad: I think I remember an estimate and something you said earlier, or wrote earlier, that amount of calories needed could go up as much as 50% in the next 30 to 40 years?
Channing Arndt: Something like that. Yeah.
Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah. Ok.
7:05: Channing Arndt: The estimates are all over the place. It's striking. Our internal estimates are around 33% growth in production. Maybe not the calories -- slightly different metric. But it’s a lot. It’s quite a bit, and it's going to be concentrated. Africa is, very roughly, half of it – half the population growth, hopefully a lot of the income growth, and so, therefore, hopefully, quite a bit of the food consumption growth. And 85- 90% of calories are going to come from not too far away.
So a lot of those calories are going to have to be produced in Africa, or in the places where the people are, where this new growth is. And so you need basically a more efficient agriculture. That's a big thing, right? So we're not pressing into the Amazon in order to feed African cities. So, mathematically, we don't want to use up more land, and we know we need more food. So then, we just need more food per unit of land. It’s almost as simple as that.
8:10: Mary Kay Magistad: And how do you do that?
Channing Arndt: You know, African productivity is low. And there’s a lot of room for expansion, here. There's a lot of room for intensification, and doing it well. We want to do this intelligently, and with the environment in mind. But the intensification is the environmentally sound thing to do, looking at this broad scale, especially in developing countries. I mean, what we don't want is slash and burn agriculture expanding out, another 10% or 20% off into more natural areas. And that just implies a different set of techniques.
There’s plenty of technologies out there that that'll allow for that. We just need to get at it. The agriculture needs to be a priority for governments to make these things happen. In the context of climate change, we need to be ahead of the curve. So we need to be thinking about, because it takes, from somebody’s idea to it actually getting out into the field in Africa -- around 10 years -- we need to be thinking about what's going to be appropriate for the climate of 2033, right now. And all the innovations that we came up with for the climate of 2015 might not be quite as appropriate anymore. We don't really think of innovation as depreciating, but in reality it does.
9:35: Mary Kay Magistad: So new innovations are coming up – to increase soil health, so the same amount of land is more productive, to find more efficient ways to get plants the water they need, when they need it, to breed more climate resistant-seeds, and for farmers to learn to grow new crops, as temperatures warm, and growing bands move. Here’s another innovation – kind of a cool one – remember I said that a fair bit of the methane emissions that come from agriculture, actually come from belching cattle? Well, it turns out – if you feed cattle seaweed, especially certain kinds of seaweed -- that methane is reduced by quite a lot – with some kinds of seaweed, almost entirely.
10:10: Channing Arndt: And it turns out -- there's some discussion about this, but there’s at worst, no growth penalty to doing this. I mean, the methane that’s escaping is effectively energy that’s escaping the animal. And this seaweed is apparently allowing them to metabolize some of that energy. So it doesn't come at a cost in terms of growth of the animal. How costly it is to get the seaweed to them will depend. But it certainly looks promising. I typically live in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Monfort, the world's largest feed lot, is 30 or 40 miles away. And for them, it’s not a big deal. If you have it, toss it in the additive and you mix that into the feed and give it for livestock.
For nomadic herders (laughs) who are not necessarily feeding every day, it’s a little more complicated. Because, they actually don’t know, do you need to feed it like every day or maybe once a week in a higher dose, is it still the same? It turns out that even nomadic herders, people who are put their livestock out in the range, will bring them in fairly regular intervals, to administer medicines or give them salt or -- and at that point in time, it then does become possible to feed them an additive, at least in, in principle. So these are all things that we need to know.
11:37: Mary Kay Magistad: Do you find that the nomadic herders and one-family farm kinds of farmers, do they see the need for doing this? Because…
11:48: Channing Arndt: I wouldn’t think so. It's barely been on the radar screen of developed country farmers, I would say. I mean, we really didn't press for emissions (related to agriculture), it didn't feel like it to me, even five years ago, anywhere near at the level that we're pressing now. And it was kinda like, well, you know, agriculture is really complicated and hard and let's try to figure out energy, basically. But now, energy – it’s not like it’s all done, by any means, but people can see a real clear path to – ok, this is what we need to do in energy. But if we’re going to get to somewhere near the 1.5(C degrees), then everything has to come in, and that means agriculture has to come in. And so this has become part of the debate.
12:30: Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah. So there’s cattle, and reducing the methane that comes from their belches. And methane hangs in the air for, I mean, it makes a big impact when it's out, but then it goes away within a decade or so.
Channing Arndt: So, which is fantastic. That’s right.
Mary Kay Magistad: So that’s one source of methane from the agricultural sector. Another, kind of counter-intuitively, is rice.
Channing Arndt: Right. About 9%.
Mary Kay Magistad: So how does methane come from rice?
12:58: Channing Arndt: Ah. Because it's flooded. So then it turns into an anaerobic environment, and what's breaking down turns into methane as it comes in. So there is the various techniques, alternate wetting and drying. The good news is, the yields don’t go down. The bad news is, the yields don’t go up. So you’ve got to go out to farmers and tell them, well, would you do this? And they say, oh, do I earn more money? Or will it make me better off? And they go, well, no, it’s going to reduce methane emissions. And then you have to explain to them what that is and what it means and why. It’s a long road. (Laughs.)
13:35: Mary Kay Magistad: And how's that going? Do farmers in your experience or in the experience of your colleagues who are out in the field, do farmers get persuaded, say in Asia? Like, ‘okay, yeah. I know what global warming is. I'm feeling the effects of wilder weather and droughts and floods and whatever, and yes, I I'll sign on I'll do this?’ Or is it kind of more like, ‘that's a lot of work and I don't see the immediate benefit for myself’?
14:00: Channing Arndt: You know, basically, it's going to fall into the latter until we do something. This is why the institutional issues are, are so important. I think a really pressing issue that a lot of smart people are working on is we have, coming out of COP26, for example, all sorts of companies that are saying, ‘we want to be net zero by 2030, or we want to contribute,’ and so forth. If Delta Airlines is going to be net zero, you know, unless there's some revolution in jet engines, they're going to be emitting quite a lot of carbon, right? That means they're going to be buying offsets. Well, somehow, we've got to figure a way that the Delta Airline passenger is paying some small premium, that is then somehow making its way to the Vietnamese farmer, such that it's in the Vietnamese farmer’s interest to do alternate wetting and drying, right? That's the big trick of this decade. And that’s probably where our biggest innovation challenge lies.
15:10: Mary Kay Magistad: This is a good time to bring Dawit Mekonnen back in, to talk about what he’s seeing in Ethiopia.
15:15: Dawit Mekonnen: Ethiopia has been through major transformations, particularly the last one or two decades. And it is true that we are not yet out of the woods. But there are efforts in terms of building infrastructure and improving agriculture. And yet, again, in terms of climate change, there are frequent droughts. There are late rains. Sometimes the rain stops early. Agriculture is still dependent on rainfall. When you have 85 percent of the population living in rural areas, when you have an economy that depends for 45 percent of its GDP on agriculture, then you can imagine a small shock for the rain, then, is going to have significant impact not only on the livelihoods of people, but also on the economy in general.
16:12: Mary Kay Magistad: What percentage of farmland in Ethiopia is irrigated?
Dawit Mekonnen: It is 6 percent of the total irrigable land that is irrigated. This is even though the country has 12 major river basins, even though the country has quite a significant, or decent, amount of groundwater potential.
Mary Kay Magistad: So why so little irrigation? Has this been a failure of policy and investment by the government, or is this because of logistical challenges. Are some areas just hard to reach? What’s going on?
16:45: Dawit Mekonnen: It’s a combination of different things, as many problems are. There’s no single issue. But I think the main thing is irrigation is expensive. If it is river diversion, there are some structures that have to be built. If it is groundwater, then you need the energy source to lift water and push water to the surface. So there is significant amount of investment requirement, which is usually beyond the reach of many farmers. So in the absence of external help, either from the government or from donors, it is not straightforward for a farmer to save up.
In terms of policy though, at least the last few years, the government has been prioritizing irrigation. They have actually established a new irrigation department, the Irrigation and Lowland Ministry. Two years ago there were at least 13 ongoing irrigation projects that are usually being funded by the government itself, when it comes to agriculture. There has been a lot of effort from donors, for instance USAID, and others as well, helping small-scale farmer-related irrigation. Not only the return on investment, but the impact on household welfare is much higher from small-scale irrigation than the large-scale one. So there have been some commitments to improve irrigation in Ethiopia.
18:18: Mary Kay Magistad: I have a really basic question. How aware are most Ethiopian farmers with whom you talk and interact about climate change? If you say, it’s not just that the rains are unpredictable or that there’s more drought, but there’s climate change, it’s happening, this is how it’s going to affect you going forward.
18:40: Dawit Mekonnen: I think they are very familiar to it. They may not be as articulate as some people are, but they have seen it in their lives. So for instance, their father might have told them, or mother might have told them, ‘oh by the way, there would be a drought every 10 years.’ And in their lifetime they have seen, perhaps it’s not happening every 10 years. It’s happening every 7 years or every 5 years. Now they are going to tell their children that it’s actually happening every 3 years. So in a way they have lived it. They have seen the increase in the frequency with which they are seeing these adverse weather shocks.
19:28: Mary Kay Magistad: And what are the most common ways that farmers are trying to adapt, and what are the most effective ways, and how much do those two things overlap?
19:37: Dawit Mekonnen: Yeah so, there was a recent survey done by the Ethiopian Policy Studies Institute, and the two most important coping strategies farmers mentioned -- they cope by selling their assets and livestock. The other one, second one was they adjust their consumption downwards. But if you are selling your livestock to cope with weather shock, then what happens next year?
20:07: Mary Kay Magistad: So on the effective side, when farmers are actually adapting in a way that’s sustainable, what are you seeing? What works? What has the biggest impact?
20:20: Dawit Mekonnen: Water is going to be the most important input in agriculture, especially in the face of weather shocks. So improving access to irrigation, not only irrigation but agriculture water management practices and investments, is one way, so that farmers can be affected less. The second one is having these drought tolerant or early maturing crop varieties. I believe the third important mechanism should be basic access to credit. What that does is, when you have access to credit, rather than adjusting your consumption downward, you will smooth your consumption over time. If you can borrow and you have the market system to tap into, like we do in any other developed country, when something shock happens, then you rely on the credit system to smooth your consumption over time rather than adjusting it downwards.
21:19: And I think the last one that comes to mind is access to insurance products. What that does is, if farmers think that there is a risk of failure as a result of climate change, then they don’t invest enough in their farm to improve production and productivity. With a weather insurance index, it could be some kind of risk-contingent credit, where if say for instance, a shock happens and a crop fails, then the insurance will kick in and pay, for instance, the credit they took on fertilizer on irrigation and so on. That will encourage investment -- farmers to invest on their agriculture.
22:05: Mary Kay Magistad: And how much is that sort of crop insurance, available at this point at an affordable rate for the kinds of farmers we’re talking about here?
22:15: Dawit Mekonnen: It’s not that much. It is being tried. Usually it is by NGOs, and a few banks and a few insurance companies. I would consider that mode a pilot stage rather than a full-blown scale out of such insurance products, unfortunately.
22:39: Mary Kay Magistad: So some of your research has been on seeds. And you’ve written an article that found there’s a low level of improved seed variety use in Ethiopia, and I assume that includes seeds that are bred to help farmers, help crops, withstand drought, flooding, heavy rainfall, all the things that can come with climate change. You would think that farmers would want to have access to those. What’s getting in the way?
23:11: Dawit Mekonnen: I think the private sector in the seed system is not as vibrant as it is in other countries. We are coming out of a state-led economy, and the private sector has only 10, 20 years of experience in having a good market value chain to reach every corner of the country. Mind you, there are also demand-side issues. There are some kind of hybrid seeds where the private sector can easily tap into -- because if it’s a hybrid seed you need to buy more frequently. But if there are openly pollinated crops, like most of the crops in Ethiopia, like wheat and teff and so on, then the private sector doesn’t have the incentive, because farmers can use 4, 5, years of the same seed without losing the vigor of the seed. So, in a way that implies that there has to be a properly crafted roles for the private sector and also the gover nment.
24:32: Mary Kay Magistad: For a farmer that has a patch of land, a certain stretch of land, how much are you seeing increased diversification of the crops grown on that land, so that whatever climate change throws at you, something’s going to survive even if some of the other crops don’t?
Dawit Mekonnen: There is diversification. That is also one strategy farmers use. They usually have four of five different parcels of land. And they tend to cultivate a number of crops—4, 5, 6 crops. That’s basically a risk mitigating strategy.
25:15: Mary Kay Magistad: And is that a traditional risk-mitigating strategy, or is that something that’s been adopted more recently?
Dawit Mekonnen: I mean, it’s a combination of risk mitigation strategy and the very nature of subsistence agriculture. If you are in subsistence agriculture, you tend to produce many things. You don’t tend to rely on the market. So it’s a combination of being subsistence, and also a risk mitigation strategy. Is it economically correct? That’s something that is arguable. Because in a way, as you diversify into more crops, then you are also losing the return that you can get from specialization. Yes, you tend to reduce risk, but at the same time, the gain from specialization might be lost.
26:05: Mary Kay Magistad: So just for some context, roughly what percentage of farmers in Ethiopia are below the poverty line?
Dawit Mekonnen: Poverty has reduced significantly the last two decades. But still it is I think around 28 or 27 percent. This is not necessarily for rural, but it is a national figure, and it can be a little bit higher for rural areas. But since 85 percent of the population lives in rural areas, it may not be that off.
26:40: Mary Kay Magistad: And back in the ‘80s, when there was one of the big famines and a smaller one, the poverty rate would have been what?
Dawit Mekonnen: It is much higher.
Mary Kay Magistad: Like above 50 percent, maybe?
Dawit Mekonnen: Above 50 percent, definitely above 50 percent, yeah.
26:50: Mary Kay Magistad: So Ethiopia is in this interesting position where it’s had some of the highest economic growth rates over the last couple decades, certainly of any country in Africa, and more than many countries in the world. There have been gains in many places. How much do you fear that hungry will still be an issue in Ethiopia as climate change intensifies?
27:20: Dawit Mekonnen: Yeah. It is -- I mean, it depends on what you are doing, right? If you are heavily investing in agriculture, and if you are investing in those areas that we talked about as well as others, then I don’t think, you can’t say there won’t be hunger, but it could be within the limits of the economy. I mean, there is hunger everywhere, even in developed countries, but the system can help without letting it blow out of proportion. We have seen, for instance, a drought in 2015-2016 in Ethiopia. And they say that it is even (more) severe than the 1984 drought. But the economy, in a way, has grown into taking care of itself, definitely with the help of partners.
28:10: So hunger, for me, is not just a function of rain failure. It’s a function of institutions that respond to it. It’s a function of where the economy is in terms of its resilience to absorb shocks. The good thing is, the economy has been growing, so in a way we are in a better position to absorb some of the shocks. And we have also learned our early warning mechanisms, and our response mechanisms to reach those affected, has also developed. It’s not just the economy that is developing. So in a way it depends on what we are doing with it. If a drought happens, while you are in the middle of a war, then that is a completely different story than climate change or drought occurring during drought or occurring in the middle of a booming economy.
28:55: Mary Kay Magistad: So also what also happens as an economy grows is that – in many places -- people move from the countryside into cities. Not everyone, but a lot of people. I’m wondering whether you’re seeing a pattern where —well first of all, how much is that happening? And secondly, how much of it is because of some of the increasing challenges of farming with climate change?
29:20: Dawit Mekonnen: It is happening. That one is easier to answer. Not only from rural areas to urban areas, but also from rural areas to suburb, semi-urban areas, and sometimes from rural areas to rural areas as well. So overall, in general, the population size is increasing. On top of that the rural to urban population migration is happening a lot. To what extent is this because of climate change? It will be difficult to tell, at least for me. It is part of it, I believe. So it is difficult to tell how much of it is from weather shocks, because it’s also a pull factor, right? When the economy grows, the construction industry grows, it starts to absorb more and more people from rural areas. So people migrate both because they’re pushed from agriculture, but also because they’re being pulled by increasing economy that requires more people in the manufacturing and construction sector.
30:22: Mary Kay Magistad: So, in wealthier countries, in urban areas, there’s already some experimentation with having vertical farms, indoor crops. And I’m wondering whether that’s something that as Ethiopia’s urban population grows, that’s a possible way of feeding part of the urban population, particularly if in rural areas you’re dependent on rain, you can’t really control what’s going to happen. And in an indoor vertical farm that’s often several stories high, you could potentially control it a bit more, particularly if the government prioritizes having investment into making sure that the inputs are there. Is that a possibility, or do you see it as just being too expensive, too complicated?
Dawit Mekonnen: It is possible that that might happen in the future, but that’s not a major practice right now. Partly because Addis is also as expensive as one of the bigger cities in the world. So the price of land is quite high. There is some movement in improving urban agriculture around Addis. It’s not necessarily vertical farming, but it is probably improving or increasing some vegetable gardens and so on here and there.
Just to give you a context, I don’t think that would make significant change in the country’s food self-sufficiency. Remember, Ethiopia is more or less a self-sufficient country. So in a way, if you define self-sufficiency as a share of how much food you eat from your own consumption, Ethiopia’s range is around 90-95 percent. Compare that to say, other countries, like North Africa and so on which is 50 percent, 40 percent, 30 percent.
32:15: Mary Kay Magistad: How long has this been true, that Ethiopia is almost entirely self-sufficient?
Dawit Mekonnen: It’s been for a long time. That is I think one of the misconceptions. It is, for instance, one of the largest wheat-producing countries in the world, probably the 14th largest producer of wheat in the world. I’m not talking about food security. I’m talking about food self-sufficiency. That means how much of your produce is coming from your own production. In that sense, it is 90-95 percent.
32:50: So what happens is every few years there would be a shock. When the shock happens, then if your agriculture is not ready, then that blows out of proportion, because now from 95 percent you end up having 5 percent or 10 percent. So the problem is resilience to shocks. It’s not having not enough land. The amount of arable land a country has is huge. The amount of water resources the country has is huge. So in a way the answer lies more in improving productivity, the amount of production you get from a given amount of land. It lies on how properly the country uses its water resources, how much energy it avails to improve agriculture, how much of those resilience measures we talked about in terms of irrigation, credit, insurance, and proper seeds that it avails. That is, I think, where most of the answer lies. It has to come out of this low-input, low-output vicious circle. It has to invest into fertilizer, more into seeds, more into irrigation, more into energy. And then it can not only feed itself but become an exporter.
34:12: Mary Kay Magistad: So Ethiopia needs to become more resilient in the face of climate change. You’ve been doing this work for decades. Do you feel like those who are working to make Ethiopia more resilient are keeping pace with the challenges of climate change? Is this a moment where you feel like ‘yup, we are moving in the right direction, we just have to keep going,’ or like, ‘yikes this is a crisis, we need to speed up.’ Or both?
34:40: Dawit Mekonnen: Yeah, you’re right. So usually these things are as complex as you can imagine but let me try to make it concrete. How do you measure whether people or entities who are supposed to push the country to that direction you mentioned —are they doing enough? If you compare for instance Ethiopia’s commitment to the agricultural sector, for instance the CAADP (the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme) from the African Union, suggests countries need to invest 10 percent of their expenditure on agriculture. Ethiopia is investing more than that. If you measure the government’s work in terms of the agents it deploys, we have 70, 80, 90,000-strong extension agents which is probably the second highest extension personnel of any country other than China. If you consider the amount of investment a country puts, not only by itself but also from partners, in terms of watershed management, landscape management, one of the most successful watershed management programs is in Ethiopia -- not just in Africa, but in the world.
36:02: So there are some big moves that not just the current government but the last couple of decades, there has been a lot of investment. In terms of the afforestation program that the current government is doing, you might have seen last summer there has been a record amount of trees planted in a given day, anywhere. This is not just a one summer thing, but it has been going on for the last four or five years. In that regard, those who are in charge are I think in the right direction.
36:40: But in the context of the problem, more still needs to happen. We need to start believing in the private sector. I mean, I understand that there is this tendency to not fully endorse or embrace private sector. But I think that’s the direction more needs to happen. Because as a government you can’t do enough, whatever size you’re operating in. The scale of the problem is just too big. There has to be some more trust of the private sector. We need to properly design the appropriate roles that the private sector should play, and what the government should play, and what development partners should play. If we get that right, I think it’s hopeful.
37:30: Mary Kay Magistad: And meanwhile, the quest for not just enough food, but the right kind of food – a healthy diet – remains a challenge in much of the world. Back to Channing Arndt.
37:41: Channing Arndt: Right now something like 40% of the world, 35- 40% of the world, can't afford a healthy diet. They’ll have either a ton of maize, a lot of maize, rice, cassava – cheap sources of calories. But they're not very nutrient-rich. And so this is one of the reasons why we have the continued high levels of stunting, even in countries that are relatively -- like South Africa is not a poor country relative to say, Mozambique, and it has lower stunting rates than Mozambique. But it still has pretty high stunting rates. We have an obesity problem in lots of countries, and we're using a poverty measure that favors production of really cheap calories, which isn't necessarily what you want to do if actually your bigger problem is shifting to be obesity in the population.
38:30: Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah. I’m wondering in terms of adaptation, with the farmers who you’ve worked with, or who your colleagues work with, how important is it to be able to access seeds that are particularly bred for withstanding drought, floods, temperature extremes – some combination of things. How much are those becoming increasingly critical for helping farmers get through the new challenges they're dealing with, with climate change?
Channing Arndt: One of the things that's a challenge that we're working on right now is we have these gene editing techniques, which are not a silver bullet, but they are very promising. Gene editing is fairly democratized, in the sense that it's not expensive to do. So, African national agricultural research services are using gene editing to come up with varieties of banana in Uganda that are resistant to some mildew, some disease that’s coming through. That’s really important. And it's important that gene editing doesn't sort of fall into the kind of policy netherworld that, biotech did – GMOs. Making sure that we don't a priori regulate away gene-edited crops is really necessary if we're going to be going after these challenges.
39:53: We do a fair amount of work in the gene-editing space. And so some people say, well, where's your climate change agenda? I say, ‘look at the gene edited crops we're looking at. Well, this one is heat tolerant. This one's drought tolerant. This one resists disease. Ok, this one's more nutritious – which isn’t straight in with climate change, but somewhat.’ This is kind of the mainstreaming of climate change. We know that come 2050, it’s going to be a lot warmer, and a lot more variable. The questions are, what do we do today to prepare for the fact that temperatures are higher already, the extremes are more extreme, and that we’re going to trend along that path. If we hold to only 50% more warming – another half a degree – we will have done extremely well. So we have to prepare, we have to adapt.
40:45: Mary Kay Magistad: So one more question, I guess. We're heading into a world where there will be a larger population, more temperature extremes, more of a need for more food, more people moving to urban areas. When you look at what's being done now and what needs to be done to make that all work for, you know, humans to be able to continue to live on earth without food shortages causing hunger, conflict, migration -- how much do you think we're actually doing the work right now that that needs to be done to get us where we need to be?
41:23: Channing Arndt: You know, there's a lot of criticism of, for example, the Green Revolution, and its environmental side effects. And those are recognized. But there really have been a lot of achievements, over the past 50 years. If you go back to 1972, people used to say, well, we shouldn't even give any aid to Bangladesh, because there's just no way that country's ever going to go anywhere. And now Bangladesh is food self-sufficient. There's plenty of environmental issues. There's all sorts of things left to do. But a lot was done. The problem that was in your face, if you were visiting Bangladesh as a child, which I did, or Sri Lanka, the lack of calories was just palpable. And you go to Sri Lanka now, or Bangladesh and it's a different story.
42:16: We have a lot of resources that we can allocate towards food and agriculture. It's not a huge share of global GDP. We've got a lot of intelligence and there's a lot that's happening. We need to do it. So there's the investment and the research that I've spoken about. There's the institutions for a new world, in a sense, and the priorities for the 21st century.
You know, one of the implications of saying, ok, we're going to have say 30, 35% increment (increase) in food demand, but it's going to happen basically a hundred percent in the developing world. So the productivity gain, the yield thing, that’s the kind of stuff we want in a sustainable intensification kind of way, to happen where this food demand is present. Everywhere else, we want to see a little bit of a different thing than what we’ve seen in the past. If you look at US agriculture, it’s absolutely phenomenal. You do an index of inputs. So it’s all the inputs. It’s the fertilizer, land, all this stuff, altogether. And it’s basically flat. And the output is going like this.
Mary Kay Magistad: You’re pointing your hand straight up. Almost straight up.
43:26: Channing Arndt: It’s a huge trajectory. So the input level has changed in composition. But it’s basically flat. And the productivity has been rising. And that’s been going on for a very long time.
In a way we need a little bit of a change in the developed world, that we actually don't need for, hopefully, the food production to be going up that much. What we would like to see is the negative externalities go down -- fertilizer running into the Mississippi, or poisoning of aquifers or whatever. So let's fix those issues. That's an important part of the climate change issue. If you go to the EPA website, and you look at US emissions, it’s going to tell you agriculture is in the range of 9 or 10 percent. But they say agriculture. Why? Because land use change in the US is about -12 on emissions. The state of Maine is a net sink. The forests are growing. And so, that, we need to expand. And if it can be -12 in the US, then it probably can be minus something elsewhere as well. Those are the kinds of things we need. So it’s a paradigm shift, but it’s not impossible to do.
43:50: Mary Kay Magistad: Channing and Dawit both see progress being made – and ways forward – to make sure the world continues to have the food it needs, as the population grows. I have one more question for Dawit.
Mary Kay Magistad: If I may ask a personal question—do you have kids?
Dawit Mekonnen: Yes.
Mary Kay Magistad: How old are they?
Dawit Mekonnen: Nine and five.
Mary Kay Magistad: So they’ll be around in 2050, when we’re supposed to have gone to a global future of net zero emissions. When you think about 2050 will be like for them and maybe your grandchildren, in Ethiopia, what do you think?
45:13: Dawit Mekonnen: What I’m thinking and what I’m hoping, it’s a mix -- that my children will live or will see less poverty, where people don’t have to worry about what they eat, or where their next meal is going to come. I hope that people don’t have to travel for hours and hours to fetch water and to fetch fuel wood. They will have access to energy. There would be no poverty in terms of energy, so they will have access to not just light, but productive access of light, in terms of having access to electric appliances they can use. And above all, there would be some sense of dignity for human life -- that you can’t say for sure say there is one now.
46:20: Mary Kay Magistad: I wasn’t expecting that answer. It’s a good reminder that the future can look hopeful, even in the face of great challenges, like climate change – maybe, especially, if you feel you’re doing something about it.
That’s it for this episode of the COAL+ICE Podcast. Next up, we’ll be looking at how urban life can be more climate friendly, as the world’s urban population grows to be more than two-thirds of everyone on earth, by 2050. Bring on the innovation.
The COAL+ICE Podcast is a production of Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, where Orville Schell is director, I – Mary Kay Magistad – am associate director, and editor and producer of this podcast – and Taili Ni is its assistant producer.
Check out the COAL+ICE project at Coal and Ice dot org, and on Asia Society’s YouTube channel. And, of course, if you’re in Washington DC, or plan to visit before April 22nd, come to the COAL+ICE tent alongside the Kennedy Center, for a visual experience you won’t forget.
Thanks for listening. See you next time.