Dr. Clare Stirling

On maize farming, climate change adaptation and GHG emissions in the run up to 2030.

As part of the IFA2030 fertilizer industry strategic review exercise, IFA has conducted a series of interviews with leading plant nutrition academics and industry experts about how they see the future for farming and fertilizers.

IFA: What do you see as the main benefits of a strategic exercise like IFA2030 for the fertilizer industry?
Dr. Clare Stirling
: IFA2030 is very timely. It offers an opportunity for the fertilizer industry and other stakeholders to better position themselves to help address some of the major challenges facing agriculture: namely how to feed a growing population in a changing climate whilst protecting natural resources and the environment. The challenges are immense and will play out differently in different regions. This strategic review process can contribute to a better understanding of the global and local contexts and the specific levers that will be needed to bring about change at the biophysical, socio-economic and political levels. I look forward to developments.

IFA: How do you see climate change affecting plant nutrition and the fertilizer industry over the next 12 years?
Dr. Clare Stirling
: Climate change is a threat multiplier and the most vulnerable food production systems are those with low inputs and degraded soils typical of many regions of sub-Saharan Africa. In these systems, both yield and inputs must be increased to meet food security targets and to protect soils which are pivotal to increasing climate resilience. This will require the optimized use of both mineral and organic fertilizer sources.

Inevitably this will result in an increase in absolute GHG emissions from fertilizers given that currently only 1.9% of world fertilizer is consumed in SSA, but the appropriate target for this region should be reduced emissions and intensified crop yields which will be feasible if best management practices are employed and the unsustainable mining of soils are avoided. In other regions such as India and China, absolute reductions in GHG emissions are feasible if more appropriate fertilizer blends and best practices are incentivized to avoid nutrient imbalances and overuse.

IFA: What do you think will be the state of maize and wheat farming globally by 2030?
Dr. Clare Stirling
: As two of the three most important cereals feeding the world, the other being rice, demand for maize and wheat is set to increase over the next few decades with two key drivers being the increase in population and changes in diets. By 2030 there will be an estimated extra 1.62 billion people to feed and most of this population growth will be in the developing world. Along with population increase, shifting diets will also be a key driver with more consumers in low- and middle-income countries wanting to eat wheat-based food at an affordable price, as urbanization expands.

In the case of maize, livestock feed is a major driver as preference for animal products and in particular poultry will contribute to a sharp increase in demand for maize. Because of the limitations on land availability, the increase in production will come mainly from higher yields per unit area rather than an expansion of crop area. This presents a particular challenge given that in many regions yields of wheat and maize have stagnated. For example, over the past few decades yield stagnation has been observed in nearly 40% of wheat growth areas. In large parts of Africa, yields of maize have never increased.

The reasons for this are complex and undoubtedly climate change and soil degradation will play an important part. This all points to the fact that substantial investment in agriculture is needed in the coming decades to draw on the best innovations in breeding, agronomy, soil and resource management to meet the challenges of sustainably increasing production of wheat and maize in a changing climate.

IFA: How will smallholder farmers best adapt to and mitigate climate change in the coming decades?
Dr. Clare Stirling
: There will be no silver bullets. A major challenge is the high level of uncertainty in how climate change will play out at the regional and local scale over the coming decades as this is the level that many national and local climate change adaptation planning takes place. Given all the uncertainty, the priority should be to make use of the best science to realize the best yields in good years. When the bad years hit, institutional frameworks and safety nets need to be in place to provide support and build long term resilience. By focusing on sustainable intensification, climate change mitigation through reduced greenhouse gas emissions can be a co-benefit.

A recent analysis by CIMMYT in India estimated a technical mitigation potential of 85.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year through adoption of various mitigation practices. About 80% of this mitigation potential could be achieved through cost-saving measures due to more efficient use of resources such as water and fertilizer. Indeed, efficient use of fertilizer (e.g. adoption of the 4Rs), zero-tillage and water management in crops is estimated to deliver more than 50% of the total technical GHG mitigation potential.

About Dr. Clare Stirling

Dr. Clare Stirling is a Senior Scientist with the Sustainable Intensification Program (SIP) at the CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) where she is the strategic lead for climate change research and the project leader and focal point for CCAFS-funded (CGIAR program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security) research. Her research is mainly on adaptation and mitigation of smallholder wheat- and maize-based systems to climate change with a focus on South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.