Climate Change Increases Food Security Concerns

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 5, 2006, (ENS) – The developing world’s struggle for food security will increase unless new crop varieties are deployed to help poor farmers adapt to climate change, agricultural experts and climate scientists warned Monday.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR, in Washington, DC, the panel said hotter, drier weather will result in shorter growing seasons and smaller crop yields across much of the developing world, challenging the livelihoods of billions of people.

A new CGIAR research report finds projected temperature increases and shifts in rainfall patterns are likely to decrease growing periods in sub-Saharan Africa by more than 20 percent, with some of the world’s poorest nations in East and Central Africa at greatest risk.

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Harvest time in India's Punjab state, known as the country's breadbasket (Photo courtesy Government of Punjab)
CGIAR also cited new research that shows warming will slash wheat production in India’s breadbasket. Production will drop 50 percent by 2050 - a decrease that could put as many as 200 million people at greater risk of hunger.

As climate change shifts wheat production to the north across the globe, it will also create opportunities for farmers in North America and Russia.

But increased yields from northern countries will not be able to make up for declining production in the developing world, according to the study.

"Developing countries, which are already home to most of the world's poor and malnourished people and have contributed relatively little to the causes of global warming, are going to bear the brunt of climate change and suffer most from its negative consequences," said Louis Verchot, a climate change scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre, one of 15 research centers allied under the CGIAR.

Verchot

Louis Verchot is lead scientist on climate change with the World Agroforestry Centre. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
“Anticipating and planning for climate change is imperative if farmers in poor countries are to avert forecast declines in yields of the world's most important food crops,” said Verchot.

In response to these concerns, CGIAR has announced a plan to strengthen its work with climate researchers to reduce the vulnerability of developing countries to climate change.

The new agenda includes efforts to develop new climate ready varieties of corn, wheat, rice and sorghum, as well as programs to encourage more efficient use of water and soil resources and to develop new practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farming.

The size of the task should not be underestimated, said Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute, a CGIAR member institute.

Experts estimate food production must be doubled over the next 25 years to feed the world’s growing population, Zeigler said, a challenge in the best case scenario.

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Irrigated rice paddies in Nicaragua depend on a steady flow of water. (Photo courtesy Gerald Urquhart)
“Now poor countries must do so in harsh environments that climate change has rendered far less suitable to agriculture,” said Zeigler, who urged the affiliates of CGIAR to rally around the climate issue.

Two members of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, told attendees at Monday’s opening session that the world is already feeling the effects of human-induced global warming.

“Climate change is already happening,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, an IPCC member and head of the Climate Impacts Group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Many agricultural regions have already warmed … and we are beginning to see that these warmer temperatures are suppressing yields.”

“We are going to have to adapt - we are not going to be able to mitigate our way out of this,” warned Martin Parry, an IPCC panelist and director of the Jackson Environmental Institute at the University of East Anglia.

There is already at least one degree Celsius of additional warming in the climate system, Parry said, “even if we cut emissions off at the knees tomorrow.”

The impacts on agriculture from climate change will vary, Rosenzweig said, as regions across the world experience less predictable rainfall, longer and more severe drought, and more intense storms.

Rosenzweig

Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig is a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies based at Columbia University in New York. (Photo courtesy Columbia)
Over the long term, warming “presents a very negative pressure on crop production,” said Rosenzweig, who encouraged CGIAR to hone research efforts at the regional level.

The alliance is well suited to follow such a path, Zeigler said. CGIAR affiliates are involved in efforts to develop new strains of maize for drought prone regions and new rice strains that can tolerate prolonged heavy rainfall and flooding are already being used by Asian farmers.

But there are limits to the ability of new varieties to counteract the effects of heat, drought, and more intense precipitation, Zeigler cautioned.

"Adaptation does not guarantee that farming will be able to continue in an area, or if it does, that farmer income will remain unchanged," he said. "Some adaptation will involve shifting production from one location to another."

Efforts to improve the capture and storage of rainwater are critical, he said, as are programs to encourage more efficient farming techniques.

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Rainwater harvesting collection jars at a farm in Nepal (Photo courtesy NEWAH)
Better farming practices will not just help farmers in the developing world adapt to climate change, Zeigler added, but will also aid efforts to curb agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture contributes some 20 percent of human-made emissions of greenhouse gases.

But low-till or zero-till farming can help keep carbon in the soil, and more targeted application of nitrogen fertilizer can curb emission of nitrous oxide - a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Parry, however, urged CGIAR to focus largely on the food security side of the agricultural equation.

“Agriculture as a source of greenhouse gas emissions is not the main issue,” Parry told attendees. “The main issue confronting agriculture is how to respond, how to adapt and how to be more resilient.”