NZ-hosted meeting will search for ways to provide food and reduce emissions

Prime Minister John Key will today front the first full meeting of a global alliance which is tasked with solving one of the greatest conundrums facing mankind: "How to grow more food to feed the exploding global population - yet emit less greenhouse gases."

This Malthusian conundrum will grab the attention of about 80 scientists, officials and politicians from 28 countries over the next three days at Wellington's Te Papa museum.

But the sheer magnitude of the problems facing humanity as it tries to grapple with the expected increase in the world's population to nine billion people by 2050 is daunting.

At issue is how agriculture can be intensified to feed a growing population while at the same time environmental concerns - including how the growth in agriculture emissions can be curtailed - are addressed.

Just one example: The International Food Policy Research Institute suggests rice and wheat yields in developing nations could decrease as much as 19 per cent to 34 per cent respectively by 2050 because of climate change. If no solution is found - it will pave the way for starvation in some countries.

The Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases has justifiably been hailed as the Key Government's most important foreign policy initiative.

It was unveiled by United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and New Zealand's Climate Change Negotiations Minister Tim Groser at last December's United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen - one of the few solid initiatives to emerge from that ill-fated meeting.

Vilsack's announcement that the US would expand its research budget for agricultural gases by another US$90 million ($128 million) over five years to support the alliance's work was critical for the credibility of the project.

Canada also voted C$27 million ($38 million) and New Zealand has chipped in $45 million.

Vilsack later used his blog to champion the initiative to US citizens saying it would bring together the nation's best agricultural scientists to develop the science and technologies that farmers around the world need to reduce greenhouse gases and yet ensure agriculture meets the world's growing need for food, feed, fibre, and biofuels.

It fits with the Obama Administration's desire to have a "progressive" farming regime.

Twenty members were signed up for the Copenhagen announcement. The alliance now has 28 members including: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Ghana , India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, the United States, Uruguay and Vietnam. Three other countries, China, Brazil and South Korea, will have observer status.

There are big issues in front of the delegates: While Vilsack advocates scientific collaboration - there will inevitably be tension over who owns the science.

Even determining consistent measures for agricultural emissions will be a stretch. But it will be abundantly obvious that without technological innovations the major challenges facing the world will not be surmounted.

Groser stresses building trust and confidence in the process will be one of the big challenges.

During closed sessions the delegates will determine how the alliance is governed and the leadership of four agriculture workstreams: Intensive livestock, extensive livestock, arable crop and rice paddies.

With nearly 80 per cent of agriculture emissions coming from livestock production, there will inevitably be debate over what is the right agricultural mix to ensure growing populations can be fed.

This issue is of critical national importance to New Zealand.

While agriculture is 14-15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions it comprises 45 per cent of New Zealand's emissions profile.

New Zealand has put its money where its mouth is.

New Zealand will also take the opportunity to showcase its own initiatives during the next few days - the $50 million new domestic agricultural greenhouse gas research centre which has been established at Massey University in Palmerston North; work being done on a greenhouse gas foot-printing strategy for the primary sector and also the ground-breaking decision to include agriculture in New Zealand's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

But even before Key makes his opening comments this morning, his Government is having to deal with a backlash.

Federated Farmers president Don Nicolson is using the event as a platform to attack agriculture's inclusion in the ETS.

"Yes the world is fully behind New Zealand, in fact they're a long way behind us looking on while the New Zealand Government prods our farmers out into an ETS in no-man's land."

But Nicolson neglects the opportunity for agriculture to profit from the ETS through carbon sequestration in soils - another issue in front of the scientists.

The science is controversial.

Arable soils have the potential to sequester an estimated 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. But - as with biofuels - people will be severely impacted if too much is used for carbon trading instead of feeding people.

Global markets for food failed in 2008 as countries shut down exports in the face of rising grain prices. The markets have yet to fully recover. Getting the tradeoffs right will be a major task.

Key deserves praise for garnering support from the United States for this initiative during his visit to New York for the General Assembly meeting last September.

Groser first floated the concept in December 2008 at the annual United Nations climate change conference.

But its gestation may well have sprung from a suggestion made by former National Cabinet Minister Simon Upton at a meeting of the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum for more transtasman collaboration in such areas.

But it was not until Key secured support from US President Barack Obama that the initiative had real legs.

New Zealand has invited two luminaries to act as scene-setters for the alliance.

India's MS Swaminathan - who is known as the father of the green revolution and is a plant geneticist by training - has the street cred to talk about the agricultural renaissance in his country.

Swaminathan was hailed by Time magazine as among the 20 most influential people in Asia.

Princeton University's Timothy Searchinger will set out the challenge of how to feed a growing world population while reducing greenhouse gases from agriculture.

The alliance is expected to develop partnerships, between farmers and agriculture organisations, the private sector, international and regional research institutions and other non-governmental organisations.