Climate Change: From Threat to Opportunity

Published on 14th December 2009

Against a background of galvanized global support for improving food security, the world’s largest alliance of international agricultural scientists – the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) – delivered a comprehensive strategy at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which promises to translate the climate change threat into an unprecedented opportunity for enabling people in the developing world to overcome hunger and poverty.


According to a 45-page report prepared by the CGIAR Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) Challenge Program, the strategy involves two lines of action – one that harnesses advances available today and another that seeks solutions for tomorrow – as exemplified by new approaches for managing controversial tradeoffs in the livestock sector and new insights into the breeding of more stress-tolerant food crops.


The strategy calls first for an intensive effort to speed the development and dissemination of dozens of improved technologies, including hardier crop varieties and more efficient ways to manage water, trees, soils, livestock, fish and forests. These have emerged from more than 30 years of dedicated research, aimed at enabling the rural poor to achieve sustainable production.


“Turning this wealth of knowledge into action,” says Thomas Rosswall, chair of the CCAFS steering committee, “will create immediate benefits, bolstering food security and adapting agriculture to climate change impacts in the near term, while mitigating future impacts through reduced greenhouse gas emissions. A quick response now will also buy us time to develop the more potent climate change solutions that will be needed 10 years from now.”


Research aimed at finding new solutions – the strategy’s second main component – must begin now, according to the CCAFS report, which was prepared with support from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) through the Alliance of the CGIAR centers.


One key task involves the use of computer modeling to inform decisions about difficult tradeoffs, such as those between environmental impacts and socioeconomic benefits in the global livestock sector. A CGIAR study published in the December 2009 issue of the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, offers new insights into how developing countries can manage such tradeoffs, which will intensify as demand for livestock products continues to grow. 


“We favor a ‘third way’ for livestock production – somewhere between factory and family farming – which makes livestock rearing more profitable but without depleting natural resources, worsening the climate or threatening public health,” says Carlos Seré, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).


In a map of deforestation hotspots in South America, the livestock study indicates where the environmental pressures of crop and livestock production are most intense. But the authors also cite major opportunities for easing the tradeoffs, such as improved management of vast rangelands (which occupy about 45 percent of the earth’s usable land) in exchange for carbon payments to remove significant quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.


Another critical line of research involves the use of simulation modeling to guide the development of roadmaps for adapting agriculture to climate change impacts. Ongoing analysis of those impacts at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) points to major changes in the area that is suited for production of major food crops, with some losing ground and others gaining.


In tropical America, for example, CIAT researchers project that the area suited for production of cassava, a major source of food and industrial raw material, will increase by more than 2 million hectares, permitting the expansion of this naturally stress-tolerant crop. In contrast, common bean, which is a vital protein source for poor consumers in tropical America and sub-Saharan Africa, will increasingly be constrained by heat stress, even more than by drought. The CIAT analyses suggest that more than 40 percent of the current bean production area will need heat-tolerant varieties, compared to about 23 percent for drought.


“Breeding of stress-tolerant crop varieties for 2020 is already under way,” says CIAT researcher Andy Jarvis. “But their development can take up to a decade, so we cannot overstress the urgency of this work for adapting agriculture successfully.”


Such technologies figure among the “building blocks” listed below, which the CCAFS strategy says are critical for reducing the vulnerability of rural people to climate change in the near and longer term:


Climate   hotspots: A logical starting   point is assessment and mapping of agriculture’s vulnerability to climate   change. While much has been accomplished, this work must now be downscaled to   the local level, so interventions can be better   targeted.


Risk   management: The emerging   discipline of climate risk management offers a variety of new options, like   climate forecasting and index-based insurance. If applied widely, these could   give farmers stronger incentives to invest in new production   technologies.


Water: The developing   world already faces a serious water crisis, which climate change will make   worse. Simple technologies, like water harvesting and storage, backed by   better policies, must be widely adopted to improve water productivity in   agriculture.


Crops: Stress-tolerant   varieties of major staples, like maize, potato and rice, are already available, and more are under development. These, together with improved   varieties of dryland crops, must be more widely disseminated through   strengthened seed systems.


Soils: Rampant soil   degradation must be reversed through concerted efforts to spread better   techniques like conservation agriculture and agroforestry. This is vital for   adapting agriculture to climate change and for realizing its potential to   sequester carbon.


Pests and   diseases: Climate-related   changes in pests and diseases of crops and livestock must be modeled and   monitored to anticipate where outbreaks will occur, so that integrated   management strategies can be prepared in advance.


Livestock: To meet burgeoning   demand for livestock products in emerging economies without exacting high   environmental or public health costs, livestock must be managed more   efficiently, such as through improved feeding and breeding strategies, and   increased surveillance for emerging diseases such as bird flu and early   warning systems to detect outbreaks.   


Fish: As climate change   puts pressure on other food sources, fish will increase in importance, though   they too are vulnerable. Pilot projects around the world demonstrate huge   growth potential for aquaculture and for more sustainable small-scale   fisheries.


Forests: Given the   indispensable role of forests in mitigating climate change and in providing a   living for millions of rural people, deforestation must be halted,   reforestation initiated and remaining forests managed more sustainably, giving   due recognition to the value of forest resources and building on the knowledge   and innovative approaches that are emerging from research.


Agricultural   mitigation: Many of the   measures needed to adapt agriculture to climate change, offer the added bonus   of removing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, particularly if such   interventions can be linked to carbon markets. In other ways as well,   including improved management of irrigated rice, livestock and nitrogen

fertilization, agriculture can contribute importantly to climate change   mitigation through the reduction of greenhouse gas   emissions.


“Climate change has brought humanity to a critical crossroads,” says Gerald Nelson, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research lnstitute (IFPRI). “In one direction, lies mounting risk; in the other, heightened resilience. It’s a choice between further procrastination or determined action today. Ironically, the people who stand to lose the most if we make the wrong choice – the world’s poor and its future generations – have practically no say in the matter. We have a moral imperative to act now in their best interests.”


Courtesy: CGIAR


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