For the first time in history, the annual United Nations climate conference in 2023 placed a spotlight on food and agriculture. On December 1, over 130 countries endorsed a declaration committing to prioritize their food systems – encompassing everything from production to consumption – within national strategies to tackle climate change. While the declaration lacks specific actions for climate change adaptation and emission reduction, it sheds light on a critical concern. The global food supply is encountering growing disruptions due to extreme heat and storms, and it is a significant contributor to climate change, responsible for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions stemming from human activities. This dilemma underscores the increasing importance of agricultural innovation in international climate discussions.
Currently, agriculture meets the food demands of the world’s 8 billion people, although accessibility remains an issue for many. However, to sustain a global population of 10 billion by 2050, croplands would need to expand significantly, leading to potential deforestation and contributing to climate change. Additionally, some prevalent practices, like the use of synthetic fertilizers, also contribute to environmental issues. Eliminating these practices without viable alternatives could reduce food supplies and farmers’ incomes. Fortunately, emerging innovations offer solutions. In a recent report by the Innovation Commission for Climate Change, Food Security, and Agriculture, founded by Nobel-winning economist Michael Kremer, seven priority areas for innovation were identified. As an agricultural economist and the commission’s executive director, I highlight three innovations particularly notable for their potential quick scalability and economic benefits.
- Accurate, Accessible Weather Forecasts: Given the increasing vulnerability of crops to extreme weather and farmers’ struggles to adapt, accurate weather forecasts are pivotal. Farmers require reliable information for strategic decisions on planting, irrigating, fertilizing, and harvesting. Unfortunately, many farmers in low- and middle-income countries lack access to detailed forecasts. Our evaluation underscores the economic payoff of investing in technology to collect and disseminate forecasts widely through platforms like radio, text messages, or WhatsApp.
For instance, precise state-level predictions of seasonal monsoon rainfall in India could assist farmers in optimizing sowing and planting schedules, resulting in an estimated $3 billion in benefits over five years, with an investment of approximately $5 million. In Benin, providing farmers with accurate forecasts via text messages could potentially save each farmer between $110 and $356 annually, a significant amount in the context of that country. Enhancing information exchange between neighboring countries through platforms like the World Meteorological Organization’s Climate Services Information System has the potential to enhance forecasts.
Another key innovation priority involves the wider adoption of microbial fertilizers. While nitrogen fertilizer is commonly utilized to enhance crop yields, its production from natural gas is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Microbial fertilizers leverage bacteria to assist plants and soil in absorbing necessary nutrients, thereby reducing the reliance on nitrogen fertilizer. Research indicates that microbial fertilizers can enhance legume yields by 10% to 30% in healthy soil, resulting in substantial economic benefits. Soybean farmers in Brazil have successfully employed rhizobia-based microbial fertilizers for years, reducing synthetic fertilizer costs and improving yields. However, this approach is not widely known elsewhere, and scaling it up would necessitate funding for expanded testing in more countries, offering significant potential benefits for farmers, soil health, and the climate.
A third priority in innovation centers around addressing livestock, responsible for about two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. As the demand for beef is expected to surge by 80% by 2050, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, reducing emissions from livestock becomes imperative. Innovative methods targeting enteric fermentation, a leading cause of methane belches from livestock, offer promising avenues for mitigating these emissions.
Nevertheless, the funding for innovation has demonstrated a history of yielding remarkably high social rates of return. This presents an opportunity for public and philanthropic investment in the development and widespread implementation of innovations with the potential to impact hundreds of millions of individuals. For maximum effectiveness, any prospective innovation must align with and be propelled by national strategies, formulated collaboratively with the government, private sector, and civil society.
Two decades ago, in response to the frustration that life-saving vaccines were not reaching the vast number of individuals in need, global leaders established Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance. By investing billions of dollars in scaling up these innovations, they successfully immunized over 1 billion children and reduced child mortality by half in 78 lower-income countries.
In the current context, at COP28, officials aspire to replicate this global response model to address the challenges of climate change, food security, and agriculture.