The Climate Crisis is an existential threat to humanity. This threat is not in the distant future, it is now and it is here.
By their geography, all Muslim countries are on the front line of the climate crisis and are already suffering from it. Poor Muslims are suffering the most. Almost half of the global poor live in the Muslim world, 60 per cent are aged below 30 and most live in rural poverty.
Malaysia is not immune from climate crisis. A recent article by Julia Ilhardt of IDEAS Malaysia predicts that by 2050, Malaysia could see up to 31 per cent reduction in rice yields of some major granaries, 460 per cent increase in oil palm plantations subject to flooding, 25 per cent reduction in dairy production and sea level rise subsuming power plants, fisheries and coasts.
We have been warned. In 2009, the UK government’s chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, predicted a ‘Perfect Storm’ of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources that threatened to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions.
Ten years later, the Perfect Storm is here as vulnerable and disaffected populations try to escape the climate crisis.
Land use sits in the eye of the Perfect Storm. If we use it wisely, we can weather the Perfect Storm, if we don’t, we must suffer its depravations.
A draft report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that we cannot keep global temperatures at safe levels unless there is also a transformation in the way the world produces food and manages land.
The report on climate change and land use also states that healthy and sustainable diets based on coarse grains, pulses and vegetables can reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
A recent report by Jean-Francois Bastin and colleagues at the Swiss university, ETH Zurich, identified the planting of billions of trees as by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the Climate Crisis. Their research estimates that a worldwide reforestation programme could capture two-thirds of all the carbon dioxide emissions from human activities.
The Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre is providing Malaysian leadership in reforestation as part of a broader vision to conserve tropical rainforest plants.
Whilst it is possible, with political will, to restore tropical rainforests, agriculture is more complex — especially across the Muslim world.
The challenge for most Muslim countries is that they cannot feed themselves and therefore depend on food imports, placing them at the mercy of international markets and accentuating climate change with carbon-heavy supply chains.
The paradox is that much of the Muslim world is rich in biodiversity — Malaysia alone hosts over 5.0 per cent of the planet’s terrestrial biodiversity. This includes local climate-resilient and nutritious crops that could replace imports.
However, to identify such crops requires research, investment and leadership. Here again, the Muslim world faces critical challenges.
Whilst countries within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) represent 25 per cent of the global population, they account for only 2.4 per cent of global research expenditure, produce only 6.0 per cent of research publications and generate only 1.6 per cent of patents.
Only three of the world’s crop research centres are hosted in Muslim countries. These are CFFRC in Malaysia, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai and the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Lebanon. CFFRC and ICBA are members of the Association of International Research and Development Centers for Agriculture and CFFRC and ICARDA are partners in the EU-funded LANDSUPPORT project to develop a decision support system for land use options for sustainable agriculture, forestry and environmental policies and practices.
Rather than as a ‘sunset industry’, many industrialised countries see agriculture as the new frontier for economic growth and national security.
Of the 10 largest agricultural exporting countries, six are in Europe and the others are the US, Japan, Canada and China. Each is investing heavily in agricultural innovation, none more so than the Netherlands which, with a population of only 17 million people, is the world’s second-largest exporter of food products. It has become an agricultural giant, showing what future farming can look like in a modern economy.
Instead of becoming another Silicon Valley, the Netherlands has invested in a ‘Food Valley’ to maximise value creation from land. Technologies such as capturing geothermal energy to heat greenhouses have enabled Dutch growers to deliver high value vegetable crops to global markets.
For Malaysia, there are clear lessons to be learned about the importance of integrating research, development and innovation in the agrifood sector and attracting global talent to deliver it.
Closer to home, Singapore recognises that its dependence on food imports puts it at the mercy of external forces beyond its control. The island state is investing in agritech and young agripreneurs who can transform the food sector.
It has launched the ‘30 by 30’ strategy to increase local food production from 10 to 30 per cent of its food needs by 2030. To achieve this ambitious target, it is building a generation of researchers who can develop innovations and farmers who can profit from agriculture.
Malaysia has two advantages that the Netherlands and Singapore can only envy; natural resources and biodiversity.It must decide if it wishes to harness these to weather the Perfect Storm and transform its agriculture - for good.
The writer is the chief executive
officer of the Crops For the Future