Sunday, June 5, 2011

Scientists Warn Disaster Looms for Parts of Africa and All of India if Chronic Food Insecurity Converges with Crop-wilting Weather; Latin America also Vulnerable

Scientists Warn Disaster Looms for Parts of Africa and All of India if Chronic
Food Insecurity Converges with Crop-wilting Weather; Latin America also
Vulnerable

COPENHAGEN (3 JUNE 2011)—A new study has matched future climate change
“hotspots” with regions already suffering chronic food problems to identify
highly-vulnerable populations, chiefly in Africa and South Asia, but
potentially in China and Latin America as well, where in fewer than 40 years,
the prospect of shorter, hotter or drier growing seasons could imperil hundreds
of millions of already-impoverished people.

The report, “Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the
Global Tropics,” was produced by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate
Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The work was undertaken by a
team of scientists responding to an urgent need to focus climate change
adaptation efforts on people and places where the potential for harsher growing
conditions poses the gravest threat to food production and food security.

The researchers pinpointed areas of intense vulnerability by examining a
variety of climate models and indicators of food problems to create a series of
detailed maps. One shows regions around the world at risk of crossing certain
“climate thresholds”—such as temperatures too hot for maize or
beans—that over the next 40 years could diminish food production. Another
shows regions that may be sensitive to such climate shifts because in general
they have large areas of land devoted to crop and livestock production. And
finally, scientists produced maps of regions with a long history of food
insecurity.

“When you put these maps together they reveal places around the world where
the arrival of stressful growing conditions could be especially disastrous,”
said Polly Ericksen, a senior scientist at the CGIAR’s International
Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya and the study’s lead
author. “These are areas highly exposed to climate shifts, where survival is
strongly linked to the fate of regional crop and livestock yields, and where
chronic food problems indicate that farmers are already struggling and they
lack the capacity to adapt to new weather patterns.”

“This is a very troubling combination,” she added.

For example, in large parts of South Asia, including almost all of India, and
parts of sub-Saharan Africa—chiefly West Africa—there are 369 million
food-insecure people living in agriculture-intensive areas that are highly
exposed to a potential five percent decrease in the length of the growing
period. Such a change over the next 40 years could significantly affect food
yields and food access for people—many of them farmers themselves—already
living on the edge. Higher temperatures also could exact a heavy toll. Today,
there are 56 million food-insecure and crop-dependent people in parts of West
Africa, India and China who live in areas where, by the mid-2050s, maximum
daily temperatures during the growing season could exceed 30 degrees Celsius
(86 degrees Fahrenheit). This is close to the maximum temperature that beans
can tolerate, while maize and rice yields may suffer when temperatures exceed
this level. For example, a study last year in Nature found that even with
optimal amounts of rain, African maize yields could decline by one percent for
each day spent above 30ºC.

Regional predictions for shifts in temperatures and precipitation going out to
2050 were developed by analyzing the outputs of climate models rooted in the
extensive data amassed by the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) from the United
Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Researchers
identified populations as chronically food-insecure if more than 40 percent of
children under the age of five were “stunted”—that is, they fall well
below the World Health Organization’s height-for-age standards.

“We are starting to see much more clearly where the effect of climate change
on agriculture could intensify hunger and poverty, but only if we fail to
pursue appropriate adaptation strategies,” said Patti Kristjanson, a research
theme leader at CCAFS. “Farmers already adapt to variable weather patterns by
changing their planting schedules or moving animals to different grazing areas.
What this study suggests is that the speed of climate shifts and the magnitude
of the changes required to adapt could be much greater. In some places, farmers
might need to consider entirely new crops or new farming systems.”

Crop breeders at CGIAR centers around the world already are focused on
developing so-called “climate ready” crop varieties able to produce high
yields in more stressful conditions. For some regions, however, that might not
be a viable option—in parts of East and Southern Africa, for example,
temperatures may become too hot to maintain maize as the staple crop, requiring
a shift to other food crops, such as sorghum or cassava, to meet nutrition
needs. In addition, farmers who now focus mainly on crop cultivation might need
to integrate livestock and agroforestry as a way to maintain and increase food
production.

“International trade in agriculture commodities is also likely to assume even
more importance for all regions as climate change intensifies the existing
limits of national agriculture systems to satisfy domestic food needs,” said
Bruce Campbell, director of CCAFS. “We have already seen with the food price
spikes of 2008 and 2010 that food security is an international phenomenon and
climate change is almost certainly going to intensify that interdependence.”
Ericksen and her colleagues note that regions of concern extend beyond those
found to be most at risk. For example, in many parts of Latin America, food
security is relatively stable at the moment—suggesting that a certain amount
of “coping capacity” could be available to deal with future climate
stresses that affect agriculture production. Yet there is cause for concern
because millions of people in the region are highly dependent on local
agricultural production to meet their food needs and they are living in the
very crosshairs of climate change.

The researchers found, for example, that by 2050, prime growing conditions are
likely to drop below 120 days per season in intensively-farmed regions of
northeast Brazil and Mexico. Growing seasons of at least 120 days are
considered critical not only for the maturation of maize and several other
staple food crops, but also for vegetation crucial to feeding livestock.
In addition, parts of Latin America are likely to experience temperatures too
hot for bean production, a major food staple in the region. The study also
shows that some areas today have a “low sensitivity” to the effects of
climate change only because there is not a lot of land devoted to crop and
livestock production. But agriculture intensification would render them more
vulnerable, adding a wrinkle, for example, to the massive effort underway to
rapidly expand crop cultivation in the so-called “bread-basket” areas of
sub-Saharan Africa.

“Evidence suggests that these specific regions in the tropics may be severely
affected by 2050 in terms of their crop production and livestock capacity. The
window of opportunity to develop innovative solutions that can effectively
overcome these challenges is limited,” said Philip Thornton, a CCAFS research
theme leader and one of the paper’s co-authors. “Major adaptation efforts
are needed now if we are to avoid serious food security and livelihood problems
later.”

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