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Monday, May 4, 2009

Climate change & food security


HOW will climate change affect agriculture? In the run up to the 15th Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009, a policy brief prepared by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) carries a dire warning. It warns water sources will become more variable, droughts and floods will stress agricultural systems, some coastal food-producing areas will be inundated by the seas, and food production will fall in some places in the interior. Developing economies and the poorest of the poor likely will be hardest hit.
    Even without climate change, greater investments in agricultural science and technology are needed to meet the demands of a world population expected to reach nine billion by 2050. Many of these people will live in the developing world, have higher incomes, and desire a more diverse diet. Climate change, however, places new and more challenging demands on agricultural productivity. Crops and livestock are needed that respond reasonably well in a range of production environments rather than extremely well in a narrow set of climate conditions. Research is also needed on how dietary changes in food animals can reduce methane emissions.
    Agricultural outcomes are determined by complex interactions among people, policies, and nature. Crops and animals are affected by changes in temperature and precipitation, but they are also influenced by human investments such as irrigation systems, transportation infrastructure, and animal shelters. However, uncertainties about where climate change will take place and how farmers will respond make it difficult to move forward on policies to combat the effects of climate change. Today agriculture contributes about 14 % of annual GHG emissions, and land-use change, including forest loss, contributes another 19 % with the developing world accounting for about 50% of agricultural emissions and 80 % of land-use change and forestry emissions.
    How can we best dissuade poor people from cutting down trees/converting other lands to unsustainable agricultural practices and encourage them to adopt technologies and management strategies that mitigate carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions? The paper advocates funding research to improve understanding of the interaction between climate change and agriculture and find cost-effective ways of reducing agriculture's contribution to green house gas (GHG) emissions.
    The paper (rightly) points out that it is much easier to monitor 1,500 coal-fired power plants than several million smallholder farmers who rely on field, pasture, and forest for their livelihoods. The fact is even with the best efforts to mitigate climate change it is inevitable that poor farmers will be affected. The goal is to find and fund the most cost-effective ways to help the poor adapt to the changes, a daunting task because of uncertainty about the magnitude of possible changes, their geographic distribution, and the long lead times needed to implement adaptation efforts.
    The problem is many changes to management systems that make farmers more resilient to climate change also increase carbon sequestration. For instance conservation tillage increases soil water retention in the face of drought while also sequestering carbon below ground. Small-scale irrigation facilities not only conserve water in the face of greater variability, but also increase crop productivity and soil carbon. Agro-forestry systems increase above-and below-ground carbon storage while also increasing water storage below ground, even in the face of extreme climate events. Improvements in water productivity are critical, and climate change, by making rainfall more variable and changing its spatial distribution, will exacerbate the need for better water harvesting, storage, and management. Equally important is supporting innovative institutional mechanisms that give agricultural water users incentives to conserve. Investments in rural infrastructure, both physical (such as roads, market buildings, and storage facilities) and institutional (such as extension programs, credit and input markets, and reduced barriers to internal trade) are needed to enhance the resilience of agriculture in the face of the uncertainties of climate change.
    Agriculture provides livelihood for more than half of the world's poorest people. As the brief states, ongoing negotiations to address climate change provide a unique opportunity to combine low-cost mitigation and essential adaptation outcomes with poverty reduction. The global community must seize the opportunity if only to ensure the most basic of all securities – food security – does not remain a pipe dream for all of mankind.

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