Not only will climate change have a differential effect on ecosystems in the tropics due to their already warmer climates, but also poor farmers in the tropics will be less able to cope with changes in climate because they have far fewer options in their agricultural system to begin with. – Molly Brown and Christopher Funk, Science, February 2008
Could a culture that has derived its sustenance from rice or wheat for millennia be convinced to switch to millet or sorghum? History dictates that such shifts occur gradually, over generations. Rapid transitions, while possible, are rare. Yet such a shift may lie at the heart of providing food security to needy populations as conditions worsen due to climate change.
In the aggregate, the world’s food security will suffer substantially as the global climate transforms. For Asia, the picture is particularly grim. For every degree Celsius that regional temperatures rise, rise yields drop by a corresponding 10%. Across Asia, far more areas will lose rice producing ability than will gain it; ADB has estimated a staggering 27% decline in rice production by 2050. The El Niño cycle, which produces hot, dry conditions in Asia on a regular basis, may be a good predictor of what’s to come: the Philippines Department of Agrictulture estimates $P10 billion in losses over six months due to decreased harvest and fish catches. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates there are already 312 million under-nourished people in South Asia. When climate change makes the El Niño paradigm permanent, this number will skyrocket as crop yields decline (up to 30% of total crop yields cumulatively), sea level rise and saline intrusion become more widespread and water resources peter out. In an ADB reference scenario presented by Dr. Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, rice yields in Southeast Asia rise initially but by 2050 fall far below today’s levels. In the face of a rising population plus the baseline of 21% food insecurity that exists today, this scenario is catastrophic.
To address this looming crisis, governments are going to need to act, and quickly. In the case of Bangladesh, Dr. Mahbuba Nasreen says it will have to start almost from scratch. Too often in the developing world, “The availability of food aid means that the government does not need to stake its political future on solving the food insecurity problem.” The first step towards achieving food security must be heightened biodiversity. Where today we have monocultures of rice, wheat and corn vulnerable to changing climates, an array of crops, chosen with climate risks in mind, offers a broad-spectrum solution. As the FAO puts it, “biodiversity…increases resilience to changing environmental conditions and stresses.”
What is needed to combat food insecurity is needed irrespective of the threat of climate change: informed seed diversity decisions, better groundwater management, capacity building, dissemination of proven technology and sustainable fisheries. Of these, the former may be both the most crucial and the hardest. Ultimately, food aid-dependent governments are going to need to embark upon food security policies in a meaningful way. In choosing what seeds to plant they will inevitably go up against local food customs, which could spark anger and unrest. (Consider, for example, suggesting that the corn-based United States switch to cassava overnight.) Through mutually respectful dialog and local empowerment, it is nonetheless possible to plant crops that will continue to sustain and nourish local populations, even in the face of a changing climate.