Technology advantage: Is technology the silver bullet?

Deep changes in agricultural systems are required for adaptation to climate change impacts such as higher temperatures, more extreme climate events and increases in pests and diseases. The Technology Advantage event, part of the larger Agriculture Advantage 2.0 event series at COP24, explored opportunities to tap into next generation technologies to rise to the challenge of transforming food systems under climate change.

Opened by Hon. Winifred Masiko, Member of the African Gender Network (AGN) and Uganda Gender and Climate Change focal point for UNFCCC, the event covered a range of technological solutions to help food systems meet food security, and climate adaptation and mitigation goals. Moderated by Hugo Campos, Director of Research at the International Potato Center (CIP), the discussion ranged from just how transformative technological advances are likely to be, to the potential drawbacks of change.  

Technology alone will not be transformative…

Can the fourth technological revolution help us speed up adaptation and mitigation to climate change?, asked Sean de Cleene of World Economic Forum (WEF). A new WEF report assesses the potential of 150 technologies and hones in on the impact of 12 of them. Alternative proteins and meat are one of these: if we reduced our meat intake by 1015% we could reduce land use by 400 million hectares—the size of the EU.

But technology alone will not be transformative. An ecosystem approach is required to bring together the financing, policy, and other essential enabling factors that can allow technological innovations to have a significant positive impact. Access to good quality data is another key ingredient for a technological revolution, and better coordination is needed:

“How can we develop a shared data system across different levels, from government, to farmers, to the private sector? A solution will need a lot of joint thinking. We are getting closer, but there is a long way to go.”

Sean de Cleene, Head of the Food System Initiative, World Economic Forum

Sean de Cleene of World Economic Forum discusses best-bet technologies for the transformation of food systems under climate change. Photo: Ratih Sepitvita (CCAFS)

… and it will take more than one

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security’s (CCAFS) Transformation Initiative, presented by Ana Maria Loboguerrero (Head of Global Policy Research at CCAFS), is also undertaking an assessment of the potential of a range of blue-sky technologies to accelerate the transformation needed in food systems to meet global climate goals.

But rather than develop new technologies one by one, we need to take a holistic, system-wide approach, developing a suite of technologies to respond to particular challenges.

The challenge of keeping up with climate change

Technology may help us to keep pace with climate change, but it won’t be easy. For instance: roots, tubers and bananas are often neglected crops, but they are the backbone of farming systems in many developing countries. As a result of new climate change-related challenges—an increase over the next 30 years in aggressive potato diseases in Ethiopia, for instance—varieties currently on shelves will soon not be fit for purpose. And increased temperatures and prevalence of drought in East Africa, the predominant region for sweet potato cultivation in Africa, will also have a negative impact on production.

“Climate change happens so fast that technology just cannot keep up, as it takes time to develop new technologies. To stay ahead of the curve, we need to identify climate impacts now and align our current research activities to breed varieties that will be able to cope with these changes.”

Graham Thiele, Director, CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB)

Today we have a better understanding of plant genes, and gene editing is one of the main technologies that can provide a solution to these issues. However, this technology is not without challenges. A complex process, we must get it right, or we could end up breeding the wrong crops.

Furthermore, distribution of new varieties must take into account the diversity of the users—farmers—and their specific contexts and needs. The success of technological innovations depends on these users; to achieve large scale changes, new innovations need to be accompanied by behavioural change.

Closing the production gap under climate change

“The production gap will not be sustainably closed without other crops that are introduced to the system, in rotations.”

Jacques Wery, Deputy Director General, Research, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)

Many governments are currently struggling to find ways to sustainably close production gaps in their countries. In some regions affected by climate change, production increasingly depends on irrigation. Solutions must respond to the twin challenges of increasing production while reducing water use. The creation of employment opportunities for youth, who suffer from high levels of unemployment in many of the most affected countries, is also an important consideration.

Solutions could feature systems that incorporate adaptive rain-fed cropping, irrigation, and markets, all adapted to the specific rainfall in a given year through technologies, modeling and good quality data from the ground

Making it happen, together

The application of technology can easily go wrong, ultimately hurting the farmers and other beneficiaries it was intended to help. But when carefully considered, it can also nurture trust, openness, credibility and inclusivity, benefitting all.

But we will need to work together to scale up existing technologies and to develop and implement new ones, said Tobias Baedeker of the World Bank, who closed the session. “We need both parts of R&Dthe research and the developmentto bring all of this to scale. Rather than cannibalizing each other, we should get together.” 

Couldn’t join the event? Watch the web recording (click “Join the event” to watch after the event).

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