Climate change will recalibrate agriculture

Photo courtesy of Reuters AlertNet

“The leading edge of climate change has arrived” says a new policy brief launched at the Second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development in Uruguay, but the growing of trees by smallholder farmers is offering an “avenue of adaptation to climate change”.

Stating that a major recalibration of agriculture is required in the face of climate change, the policy brief synthesises key messages about what is currently known about the likely impacts of climate change on the commodities and natural resources that comprise the mandate of the CGIAR and its 15 centres.

Of those natural resources are forests and trees which play a primary role in absorbing and storing carbon. They also serve to help people adapt to climate change. Mangrove swamps buffer coastal communities during storms, inland forests help regulate the flow and quality of water, and forests and agroforestry provide numerous products that boost the diet and livelihoods of communities.

Prepared by the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) Programme, with input from scientists at each of the CGIAR centres, the policy brief: Recalibrating Food Production in the Developing World: Global Warming Will Change More Than Just the Climate offers the most coherent picture yet of what climate change adaptation could look like for agriculture in the developing world.

Increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will impact agriculture this century. In some places this could be beneficial, such as making crops at higher altitudes more productive. But in the tropics and sub-tropics, where the world’s hungriest people live*, climate change could cause crop yields to fall 10 to 20 per cent between now and 2050.

Forests, trees and biodiversity are also under attack from climate change. Lower levels of precipitation make forests more prone to fire. Changing weather conditions will allow not just crop pests to flourish, but also those that plague forests.

The brief is quick to point out that adapting agriculture to climate change is about more than just planting crops that can tolerate warmer weather. Crops that can withstand high temperatures may not be able to cope with expected changes in rainfall. Crops that can tolerate occasional
flooding may be susceptible to new or increased levels of pests and diseases brought on by higher temperatures.

The overall message is that crops may not be able to grow in the same places they have been grown for generations. In different parts of the world, this may require people to change their diets to meet their nutritional needs. Climate change is expected to diminish yields of the world’s
three primary dietary staples: maize, wheat and rice.

Farmers are being expected to increase their food production to feed an ever-expanding population (estimated to grow from 7 to 10 billion by 2050) while adapting to climate and at the same time, reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions. They are “scrambling to adjust,” says the brief. But amidst the doom and gloom there are promising developments.

Smallholder farmers who are growing fruit, fodder and other trees through agroforestry are diversifying their food and fodder production while stabilizing their soil, reducing runoff and erosion, and improving water retention.

“Trees continue to be valued as a provider of agricultural commodities like nuts and fruit; as a mitigating resource that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and also as a staple of adaptation—trees help stabilize soil erosion, better regulate water, as well as provide shade, firewood and fodder,” says the brief.

The Great Green Wall of the Sahara and Sahel – a 15 kilometre wide and 7,700 kilometre long belt of forest – which aims to halt desertification may also help moderate the impact of climate change in the region.

The policy brief outlines the pieces of the jigsaw that must be assembled to ensure the viability of food production in the near future. It is largely aimed at identifying gaps in knowledge to help define the research agenda of the CGIAR for the coming years.

There is an urgent need to better understanding how climate change will affect the world’s staple crops, livestock and the natural resources that nourish them. To achieve this requires a “strong body of research that provides robust predictions of what growing conditions will look like in different parts of the world during the next few decades”.

The policy brief is essentially a summary of a more in-depth study which outlines the views of over 70 authors on the effects of climate change on 22 of the most important agricultural commodities and for agroforestry, forests, and water. The full study Impacts of climate change on the agricultural and aquatic systems and natural resources within the CGIAR’s mandate was published as CCAFS Working Paper 23 and developed at the request of the United Nations’ Committee on Food Security.

For more information, visit the CCAFS Media Centre

*The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 released on World Food Day states that almost 870 million people, 850 million of them in developing countries, are chronically undernourished.'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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