Challinor said "greater atmosphere of collaboration" between academe and industry

Challinor said "greater atmosphere of collaboration" between academe and industry

For those with an interest in the issue of climate change - and in truth that's approximately 7bn people - 2014 is an extremely significant year.

The past month has seen the publication of reports by two Working Groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which, along with the report from Working Group I (WG1) published last September and the Synthesis Report to be published in October, will constitute the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report on climate change (AR5).

That summary alone - or a glance at any of the three websites pertaining to the respective WG reports - will serve to illustrate the huge volume of research being undertaken on climate change. While it was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme to provide policymakers with regular assessments regarding climate change impacts, the IPCC's work in bringing together current scientific thinking on this issue represents an indispensable resource for many other stakeholders, not least the food industry. As its last assessment report was published in 2007, there is much new research to take into account.

In particular, the WGII report, entitled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, which details the impacts of climate change to date, future risks and opportunities for effective action to reduce those risks, could not have greater pertinence to food companies, particularly as they engage in making their agricultural supply chains more sustainable.

However, it should be extremely heartening for food companies that Andy Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts at the University of Leeds and a lead author of the "Food security and food production systems" chapter of that report, stresses not only what food companies can learn from AR5 but what they can contribute in terms of information and insight going forward.

He believes the transfer of information between academe and industry "works both ways". As there remains much to learn about the possible "winners and losers" in terms of specific regions and crops, monitoring very specific impacts on the ground will be vital. Challinor says there is "no doubt" that the food industry is in an ideal position to provide such insights. "Monitoring and evaluating is an obvious area for focus for business," he says.

In terms of new insights garnered since 2007, Professor Challinor points in particular to the impact that extreme and erratic weather patterns are now having on the food supply as a "cross-cutting message" of the IPCC research. This once again is an area of crucial significance to the sustainability of food companies' agricultural supply chains.

"The issue of erratic weather or year-to-year variability is one that really emerges and it is certainly not something that is constricted to a particular region," says Challinor. While he states that erratic weather has been a factor of climate change that "we've known about for many years, and we've talked about for many years", the difference now is the growing evidence of its direct impact on the food supply, particularly in the form of price spikes. He adds that while the impact of erratic weather will "play out differently for different businesses", the "overall threat is a common one".

Challinor emphasises that AR5 provides "stronger evidence for things that were known before" rather than adding radically new ideas, for example giving greater weight to the overall projection that the Tropics will be affected sooner and in greater magnitude than temperate regions.

Another key facet of the IPCC position reflected in AR5 is the changing balance between climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation. "Certainly there is greater emphasis on adaptation than in the past and I think that reflects the reality of the irreversible component of climate change," Challinor tells just-food. "I personally think it is important not to have that greater emphasis at the expense of remaining aware of that amount of climate change that we can influence and that we can mitigate."

Clearly, climate change and in particular the Water-Food-Energy Nexus has an enormous bearing on how food companies are striving to make their supply chains more sustainable, and their work in this regard has relevance both to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Professor Challinor was reluctant to give an appraisal of the food sector's contribution to the global effort to address climate change to date, as he felt this was an area where he lacked sufficient direct knowledge. One of the most appealing aspects to interviewing scientists is the ease with which they confess not to have an answer, or their reticence to express opinions which they feel are not sufficiently informed by their own research. In a world where so many are ready to provide unequivocal views on the basis of palpably scant knowledge, it is a refreshing quality.

However, Professor Challinor does believe there are "definitely increased opportunities" for industry engagement on climate change, and points to the growing number of academics "who recognise the importance of engaging with business".

Moreover, he sees the leadership role major companies or leading NGOs can play within their respective sectors as critical to the collective effort. "The major players in this field, be it governments or the multinationals or the NGOs, have a role to play in leadership within their sphere of influence." Arguably, in the food sector companies such as Unilever, Nestle and PepsiCo, along with groups like the World Economic Forum and Consumer Goods Forum, are already demonstrating precisely that sort of leadership.

As for the level of cooperation between industry and other stakeholders, Professor Challinor is also relatively sanguine. While once again stressing that his own work tends to involve more liaison with NGOs than with commercial operators, he perceives a greater generalised spirit of inter-stakeholder collaboration on the climate change issue. "I think that compared to say ten years ago there is a greater atmosphere of collaboration between the corporate sector and academia on food and environmental and climate issues. That is something I am definitely aware of."

While Challinor says calling this a paradigm shift would be overstating the case, he observes a changing culture regarding knowledge exchange which can arguably only have a positive bearing on how climate change is addressed in the challenging years to come.

"I wouldn't go as far as to call it a new paradigm but it's recognised that what used to be thought of as knowledge transfer is knowledge exchange, and is partnership and is working together." How research is being approached, he concludes, is no longer about researching and publishing papers and then thinking about "who might be interested in your message", but engaging with those interested parties at an earlier stage about the questions the research is seeking to answer and how other stakeholders may be able to use its conclusions. In this regard, Professor Challinor and his peers will certainly find food companies to be willing interlocutors.