Mar 16
March 16, 2015

Addressing Food Security in a Climate-Constrained World


One of the most significant challenges we face today is providing food security for all in a climate-constrained world.

More than ever before, we need true leadership now; we need leaders who recognize that they can’t do it alone and leaders who can create strong partnerships. We need leaders who take a whole systems approach to addressing this challenge.

We need humility, we need a deep sense of urgency and we need innovative thinking to ensure food security for all is achieved. Despite many significant gains, the truth is, we're not there yet on food security.

Addressing the issue of food security will require a whole systems approach. In other words it will require all of us -- all sectors, all parts of this intricate system -- to think and work together.

As a young girl growing up in the small country of The Netherlands, I saw first-hand how any particular part of a system was affected by the whole system. Through my academic studies and my professional career, which have taken me to China and India and many other countries, I have become more and more convinced that to address complicated challenges we need to apply systems thinking to create systemic solutions.

As a young girl in the The Netherlands, I also never went to bed hungry; my nine-year-old daughter never goes to bed hungry. She sees this as a given, as her unassailable right, as she should. But as we all know, food security is still not a right that is available to all children in the world. And that is unacceptable.

The Clinton Climate Initiative is an initiative of the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation whose purpose is to improve and save lives by finding and helping to implement systemic solutions to the interlocking problems that face communities and countries.

Nothing could more powerfully underscore the need for a systems approach than the necessity to feed the nine billion people who will be living on our planet by 2050, complicated in so many ways by climate change.

The challenge is unprecedented. Never before have we shown the capacity to grow food for nine billion people, much less at a time when climate change will result in shifting weather patterns, increasing floods and mega-droughts, and the depletion of fresh water resources.

Already, 800 million people, many of them children, go to bed hungry every night. As countries improve their economies, more pressure will be put on our lands, our water and our natural resources. We have to find and share innovations in agricultural practices, which will make the difference in avoiding disastrous food shortages that can destabilize fragile states. 

In this interdependent world, there will be an ever-greater need for resiliency in the natural systems that support our food production, both land- and ocean-based.

The Green Revolution is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people. One of the great leaders of that effort Dr. Swaminathan, has called for an Evergreen Revolution because now we need to expand our sights and include the dynamics of the whole system.

For example, fertilizers and improved crops and seeds cannot replace the need to also care for the health of the soil, the efficiency of water management, and a deep recognition that agriculture must be undertaken in harmony with nature.

The Clinton Foundation has focused on these important issues for many years. The Clinton Development Initiative has shown how smallholder farmers in Africa can grow their crops in a way that produces more food while sequestering more greenhouse gases. The Foundation has seen the results first hand, and we firmly believe that smallholder farmers are the backbone of African agriculture. As livelihoods are created and income rises, local farmers show that they are the best stewards of the land.

Female farmers at a CDI Anchor Farm in Malawi.

We also know that women play a critical role in agriculture. Secretary Clinton’s close friend, the late Dr. Wangari Maathai, was our partner in a program to restore degraded lands in Africa. Dr. Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership to promote women centered activities and to help them better their situation.

A systemic approach to food security is an inter-generational challenge and I am happy that Dr. Maathai’s daughter Wanjira is carrying the torch. Young leaders like Wanjira help ensure this new focus on agriculture, economic development and the role of women and girls in society has champions in the next generation.

And this matters as we seek innovations in agriculture. For example, the FAO forecasts that if women farmers had the same access to productive resources as men, total agricultural output would rise, and the number of hungry people in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million.

Furthermore, although women are often the stewards of our natural resources and are often disproportionately affected by natural disasters, they are still not fully involved in disaster risk management programs or environmental processes.

The Clinton Climate Initiative, with its partners, is a pioneer in forest and landscape conservation and restoration. The Rockefeller Foundation supported our early efforts to sequester carbon by preserving rainforests in Indonesia, buying time for advances in clean energy that can address climate change.

Our program in Guyana has promoted a low carbon development strategy and our programs in Cambodia and Indonesia have established that there really is a triple bottom line for forest and landscape restoration: carbon sequestration, better livelihoods, and a host of environmental benefits.

Our SLEEK program, which is the Systems for Land-based Emissions Estimation in Kenya,focuses on data management to help the Kenyan government make informed decisions, quantify their emissions, and help local farmers know when and what to grow.

Our programs are now being replicated to other countries including Vietnam, India, and Ethiopia. Here we continue to help farming communities bring degraded land back into productivity.

Global restoration efforts have picked up steam in many different venues. The Bonn Challenge set a goal of restoring 150 million hectares of degraded land, and at the recent Climate Summit, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon set an even more ambitious goal of 350 million hectares. There is still much work to be done to shape these pledges, organize the vast number of organizations that will need to work alongside committed governments, and develop appropriate technologies and practices to meet the goals.

My home country, The Netherlands, has taken a global leadership role in funding and guiding the efforts of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, which has found an enormous amount of support from other governments. They have rightly concluded that one size will not fit all. The search for the best innovations will result in different pathways for different countries.

The Clinton Climate Initiative will work with any country that seeks to find their own pathway to meet their own food security challenges. New leadership in India holds the potential for a cohesive food security program. Mexico embarked on an End Hunger campaign that offers the full range of technologies and practices of a multidimensional food security initiative. Ethiopia, the DRC, Uganda and other countries have recently made commitments to restoring their lands.

These steps forward by international leaders takes me to a critical point: The practical reality on the ground is that these land-based systems cannot be neatly divided and handled as though in separate containers. They are all part of a dynamic system, with each part interacting with the others. When forests are cut down for grazing or agricultural usage, it is the full landscape that is in play. When agriculture is expanded without being well planned, it draws upon the limited resources across a broad landscape.

A fully integrated, whole systems approach is the only way that communities can become sustainable and resilient. Forest and landscape restoration and climate resilient agriculture, including the looming question of water depletion, will require innovative approaches, just as new crop or seed improvements will take scientific innovations.

At the same time, we must not underestimate the role of the oceans to provide food and nutrition. The seas and the life they sustain, the mangroves, sea grasses, fish, and kelp forests, sequester about the same amount of carbon emissions annually as do land-based forests and vegetation. But we have reached a critical stage where the health and even viability of the oceans to play their essential climate role alongside forests and vegetation, can no longer be taken for granted.

We cannot neglect this source of food security, nor should we ignore the ocean as a living example of a complex adaptive climate system.

The Clinton Climate Initiative takes a strategic view of our climate agenda and we fully intend to work with countries to conserve and protect not only their forests and landscapes but also their blue carbon zones of sovereignty. Degraded or destroyed, the seas cannot feed people or sequester carbon. If we think we have a challenge now, imagine how desperate the world would be if we could not count on the oceans ecological and climate services.

The Clinton Climate Initiative encourages you to think critically about how we can address these food security and climate challenges. We have had the pleasure of working with many important partners and we look forward to addressing the issue of food security in our climate-constrained world together.

Adapted from a speech delivered at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture conference in Abu Dhabi, March 10, 2015.