Climate change may change the way we eat, study shows

2 Nov

A new study released Wednesday by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research Research (CGIAR) Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) shows that food and agriculture production accounts for almost 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which are contributing to climate change. This number, 17,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide annually, is alarming to scientists, who previously thought the number was much lower.

Food’s carbon “footprint” has major implications for the way food is produced and distributed, and developing countries are most at risk and may have to change the way they eat drastically.

In addition, as the earth starts to warm, key crops like maize, rice and wheat will decrease due to higher temperatures and rainfall becomes unpredictable. The researchers said this new finding shows how urgent climate change mitigation is, not only for the environment, but for food security.

“Climate change mitigation and adaptation are critical priorities. Farmers around the world, especially smallholder farmers in developing countries, need access to the latest science, more resources and advanced technology. This research serves as an urgent call for negotiators at the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Doha,” Bruce Campbell, CCAFS’s program director, said in a press release.

Frank Rijsberman, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium, said that more studies are needed to show specific ways farmers, especially in developing countries, can adapt.

“We are coming to terms with the fact that agriculture is a critical player in climate change. Not only are emissions from agriculture much larger than previously estimated, but with weather records being set every month as regional climates adjust and reset, there is an urgent need for research that helps smallholder farmers adapt to the new normal,” Rijsberman said in a press release.

This is because by the year 2050, wheat yields in these countries could fall by up to 13 percent and rice by 15 percent. Because of the decrease in key crops, feeding livestock will become more expensive, therefore adding to a decline in protein sources.

Marine organisms, which are very sensitive to warmer temperatures, will also decline.

“Ecosystem changes due to climate change may spawn shifts in the intensity of pests and diseases, including potato blight and beetles that will further limit food production. Indeed, even if crops could withstand increased temperatures and decreased rainfall, their yields could drop because of these scourges,” said Philip Thornton, the author of Recalibrating Food Production and a theme leader at CCAFS.

Although the findings look grim, the authors say that it is not too late to take action. By reducing emissions in all areas, including agriculture, the change may not be so drastic. But Thornton warns that being open to trying new crops is a must, for only growing crops where they are most sustainable could be one of the solutions.

He said that national food self-sufficiency could be a good aim for countries, but doing this requires adaptation.

“Shifting crop production areas to places that are more suitable, for example, shifting potato cultivation to higher elevations where it is cooler, using varieties that are more drought- or heat-tolerant, or growing different crops,” Thornton said.  “At household and community levels, households will need help to become more diversified and resilient, and this may mean trying out different crops to those they are used to, for example. In many places there are likely to be incremental changes to agricultural land use and practices, although in places that are severely affected by climate change, agricultural production may end up looking somewhat different to what it does today.”

He said one solution for developing countries and smallholders may be portioning out a section of their land to plant trees. The trees add nutrients to the soil and take the carbon out of the air. The leaves can then be fed to the cattle.

“The increased meat and milk production provides more income for the farmer, as well as reducing emissions,” Thornton said.

Thornton said he hopes these findings will serve as a wake- up call and urge policy makers to take action.

“If we’re to enhance food security for hundreds of millions of people in the developing countries, we need actions at every level. Mitigating emissions, many of which are produced in developed countries, with many of the negative impacts showing up in developing countries who  generally emit far less, and helping households and communities to adapt to the changes are inevitable,” Thornton said.  “This includes national and international research and extension organizations, NGOs working on the ground in developing countries, the private sector that can help in making inputs and information available, and national governments that can provide a facilitating environment within which mitigation and adaptation can take place equitably and efficiently.”

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