event 10 Oct 2018

Science Forum 2018 Background Paper // The Climate-Land-Energy and Water Nexus: Implications for Agricultural Research

By Vignesh Sridharan, Mark Howells, Eunice Pereira Ramos, Caroline Sundin, Youssef Almulla, Francesco Fuso-Nerini. This paper was commissioned by the ISPC to set the scene and guide Science Forum 2018 discussions. 

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In a resource-constrained world, uneven distribution and availability of resources can cause stress–and even conflict. With increasing demand, mismanagement can ensue. Thresholds–even those described as ‘planetary boundaries’ (Rockström et al., 2009a)–are being crossed. Two that result in irreversible damage have been identified: biosphere integrity and biogeochemical flows. Agricultural systems and their transformation in the past 50 years have played a significant role (Campbell et al., 2017; Steffen et al., 2015) in each of them. Agricultural production between 1960 and 2015 has tripled, due to improvements in technology and expansion in the use of natural resources, to satisfy food demands of the population that increased from 3 billion to 7.4 billion in the same period (UNDESA, 2018).

Increase in food production per unit of land and labour has led to a significant number of people leaving the ‘extreme poverty’ box and improved economic status in highly populated countries like India and China. With rising incomes and the global population expected to reach almost 9.77 billion by 2050 (UNDESA, 2018), the demand for food is expected to increase by 50% compared to 2013 levels. This leads to growing incertitude as to whether this demand can be met, without degrading the environment and crossing more planetary boundaries. In addition to future concerns, there exist presentday challenges that warrant global attention.

There are severe problems with dietary patterns. High consumption levels in foods rich in fats and sugars (WHO, 2016) have resulted in worldwide obesity nearly tripling since 1975. Nevertheless, global food production in 2012 exceeded demand with some studies indicating that there is indeed sufficient carrying capacity to meet food demand in 2050 (Holt-Giménez et al., 2012); this is undoubtedly a good thing. Indeed, human ingenuity being what it is, it is inevitable that producers (and their governments in turn), will respond to opportunities for increased agricultural production signalled to them through increasingly integrated global markets for food.

Despite the technological and economic breakthroughs that have lifted the global threat of insufficient food for a growing global population, there is still hunger and malnutrition, particularly in countries with civil war and high levels of inequality (FAO, 2017a). For example, food wastage and losses constitute about one-third of all the produced food (HLPE, 2014). Many factors affect this poor infrastructure–storage options, post harvesting and weak institutional frameworks, to name a few. In addition to socioeconomic and technology-based challenges, change in climate also affect the agricultural sector.

On the one hand, the agricultural sector along with forestry and land use change (AFOLU) contribute about 24% of the total GHG emission (Smith et al., 2014). On the other hand, climatic change due to increased emission concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere is expected to affect every aspect of food production. With the conversion of forests to agricultural land for farming, carbon sequestration potential is reducing; this has been observed in the case of the Brazilian Amazon (Brienen et al., 2015). Development in agricultural systems and climate change also affect the availability and quality of the other resources namely: water, energy and land. That brings us to the definition of the first topic of discussion in this article—the climate, land, energy and water nexus.


Science Forum 2018 website (open access)


To download the annex, please click here.


September 2018


Vignesh Sridharan, Mark Howells, Eunice Pereira Ramos, Caroline Sundin and Youssef Almulla, Francesco Fuso-Nerini of the KTH – Royal Institute of Technology.


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