Is science the only answer to climate change and food security challenges? Andrée Carter reports from the Planet under Pressure conference.

Andrée Carter

A major international conference held at the end of March, Planet under Pressure, focused on solutions to the global sustainability challenge.

First, we need to recognise a shared vision of what a truly sustainable world will look like, and to do that, we need to cooperate across disciplines and with a wide variety of stakeholders.

After all, how can you develop a strategy for action without a vision?

So a diverse group of organisations – the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the British Council, CAFOD, Comic Relief, InsightShare, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Sainsbury’s – came together to present three sessions, with contributions from leading figures in science, politics, industry, civil society and the arts.

UKCDS works with UK government and funders to maximise the impact of UK research on international development. Planning for the three sessions that UKCDS helped run, we started from the premise that even the best science will not be sufficient to tackle the challenges, including food security, posed by climate change.

Science alone is not the answer

According to the State of the Planet Declaration, issued by the Planet under Pressure scientific organising committee, ‘interconnected issues require interconnected solutions’. This might seem like an uncontroversial point, but getting different disciplines to genuinely listen to one another is not easy.  Multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches to addressing grand challenges such as climate change are essential. But institutional structures and nationalistic funding streams can create artificial divisions not only between disciplines and sectors, but also between countries.

Our role at UKCDS is to challenge funders to think and do differently by finding innovative ways to fund truly collaborative approaches that include stakeholders from around the world, especially from developing countries.

So ably chaired by BBC Radio 4’s Quentin Cooper, our sessions challenged convention and explored how science, the arts, the private sector, civil society and the world of politics could better work together towards a common vision of sustainability.

The debate around food security is a useful entry point to these kinds of questions. Speaking in last of our three sessions, our chair and Defra Chief Scientist, Sir Bob Watson said that we have “lost the connection between the food we consume and where it comes from; people need to not only think about their health in relation to diet, but also its impact on the environment.”

With the UK importing much of the food we find in our supermarkets (often from low and middle income countries) there are multiple environmental impacts that need to be visible, accounted for and understood. These range from the local, such as livelihoods, biodiversity and ecosystem services, to the global, including greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change.

The Global Food Security (GFS) programme has already started to address some of these issues. GFS Champion and fellow GFS blog contributor Tim Benton is leading a comprehensive and integrated approach to understanding how climate change will influence food security both in the UK and in vulnerable developing countries in the future.

Tim and I met at Planet under Pressure with Simon Cook, the new Director of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research Programme 5 (CRP5) on Water, Land and Ecosystems. Simon is based at the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka and we have invited him to the UK in June to discuss potential linkages with UK research institutes. Their key challenge is intensifying agriculture to increase food security whilst using natural resources carefully and minimising harm to ecosystems.

Bringing it together

Planet under Pressure inspired us to convene a meeting last month of all the leaders and champions of the cross-research council and government research programmes: Global Food Security, Living with Environmental Change, Global Uncertainties, UK Water Research and Innovation Partnership and us at UKCDS. We agreed that all these initiatives should begin to work together, recognising that the connections between topics are critical, as is a comprehensive systems approach. The added value of sharing knowledge, methodologies, resources and stakeholder networks will only strengthen the value of scientific evidence, and this will then inform and improve policy and practice.

So we’ve been taking activities forward as the BRAVE collaboration – Big Radical Approaches towards a Vision for the Earth. Follow us on Twitter (@bravecollab) to keep in touch with our plans and watch the participatory films shown at the conference. We also worked with InsightShare to produce some fantastic short films. They were shot by participatory video hubs in Bangladesh, India, South Africa and Ethiopia to reflect visions of sustainability from the global south.

They are a great resource for sparking ideas and discussion around sustainability issues, and we’d love them to be used widely (as long as we’re credited), so please do take a look.

About Andrée Carter

A soil scientist by training, Andrée has been Director of the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) since 2007. UKCDS works with UK government and funders to maximise the impact of UK research on international development by improving coordination, strengthening capacity and championing best practice. Follow UKCDS on Twitter (@ukcds) to keep up to date with the latest development sciences research opportunities, including funding, jobs, events and news.

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