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  • Written by  Hazel Southam
  • Published in Climate
Food for thought Vito Arcomano/Alamy
01 Mar
2014
Whether it’s increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, the spread of pests and pathogens or the impact of sea-level rise, climate change is making life increasingly precarious for farmers around the world

Tonight, one in eight of the world’s population will go to bed hungry. According to Oxfam, by 2050, that number will have risen by ten to 20 per cent simply because of the effect that climate change is having on agriculture.

Richie Alford, director of research and impact at Send-a-Cow, works with 15,000 farmers in seven countries in Africa. ‘Farmers are very worried about what’s happening right now,’ he says. ‘The growing seasons have completely changed. Unpredictable rainfall makes farming more difficult. And this is the biggest issue for farmers in Africa – rain doesn’t fall when it’s expected.’

Unpredictable rainfall makes it difficult for farmers to know what to plant and when. They stop trusting their judgment. Some hedge their bets, planting at different times, but the overall result is that yields are down. ‘Getting through the year is becoming more and more difficult for the poorest people,’ Alford says.

Development NGOs such as Send-a-Cow and Oxfam all report that unpredictable weather, including an increase in severe weather, is already having a crippling effect on agriculture
in developing nations. According to the IPCC, some 62 per cent of Niger’s cattle were killed by drought in 1982–84; 42 per cent of cattle died in Ethiopia between 1991 and 1993; and 28 per cent of cattle died in Northern Kenya in 1991–93.

Climate change is already ‘a reality’ for farmers in Rajasthan, according to the Times of India. In November, a local government minister described farming as now being ‘a high risk activity’. ‘Rajasthan is the second highest producer of milk in the country,’ he said. ‘But the current annual loss in milk production due to heat stress in Rajasthan is 98.65, 40.55 and 29.74 litres per animal per year in crossbred cows, local cows and buffaloes respectively.’

This, the paper reported, is likely to lead to ‘a decrease in crop and animal produce… aggravating the risk of hunger, malnutrition and poverty.’

 

CHANGE HAS BEGUN

It is, of course, impossible to attribute every storm, flood or dry period to anthropogenic climate change. So, how do we know that things are really changing for farmers in the developing world?

In 2005, the development agency Tearfund surveyed farmers with whom it worked in Africa, Asia and Latin America. When the authors of that report returned to the farmers seven years later, they discovered that, almost without exception, things were getting worse. ‘Today, communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America are experiencing more severe and dramatic climate change than they were in 2005,’ the authors wrote. ‘Change had begun then, but it has become more intense.

‘A vicious cycle of floods and droughts has now become normal, reducing people’s ability to meet their own needs and forcing many into poverty,’ they continued. ‘Their animals and fish are dying. People are moving away from their homes to find work – sometimes never to return.’

One such farmer is 53-year-old Silas Ndayisaba from Rwanda. He has been farming since he was 16 and says that he has seen a lot of change in that time. Notably, the seasons and the weather are becoming increasingly unpredictable. ‘When the weather is good, I have produce to sell,’ he said. ‘But this year, the harvest wasn’t good because of the flash floods.

‘The weather is less predictable and the drought means that we have a lot less food,’ he continued. ‘Things have changed in the past 20 years. Thirty years ago, we had good harvests and could predict the weather patterns. In those days, beans cost 40 Rwandan francs (4p) but now they cost RWF450.

‘Twenty years ago, we could plan,’ he concluded. ‘Today we can’t. Prices have gone up. I buy less and I only eat twice a day.’

And then there’s Martín, who lives on the edge of a river, close to the coast, in Honduras. ‘I’ve seen the climate here change in the last 15–20 years,’ he said. ‘The dry season has got hotter and burns up the crops that I plant. When the rains come, now the floods are heavier than before, more frequent, and the waters rise higher. We have more problems with insects and rats because the weather’s changed and that also affects my crops.’

 

SPREADING PESTS

This anecdotal evidence of an increase in crop pests is beginning to be borne out by research. Currently, some ten to 16 per cent of global crop production is lost to pests and pathogens, and new strains are constantly evolving. But more worryingly, they’re also on the move.

A study published last September in Nature Climate Change revealed a strong relationship between climate change and the expansion of crop pest and pathogen distributions. Carried out by researchers at the universities of Oxford and Exeter, the study showed that since 1960, increasing global temperatures have allowed crop pests and pathogens to spread towards the poles at an average rate of nearly three kilometres per year. ‘If crop pests continue to march polewards as the Earth warms, the combined effects of a growing world population and the increased loss of crops to pests will pose a serious threat to global food security,’ says the study’s lead author, Dr Dan Bebber of the University of Exeter.

Farmers in Europe and the UK are also experiencing the effects of unpredictable and dramatic weather. Last year’s IPCC report showed that in 2003, a 6°C temperature rise in Europe led to a record drop in crop yields of 36 per cent in Italy, where fruit harvests were also down by a quarter. Even subsequent winter crops were affected, with a 21 per cent drop in yields seen in France.

In Britain in 2010, the dry summer led to a dramatically reduced hay harvest, resulting in a rise in prices of 40 per cent. This, in turn, saw a rise in the number of horses being abandoned and taken into animal refuges.

The floods of 2007 also hit the farming industry, costing farmers some £66million. This was then compounded by the droughts and then floods of 2010 and 2011, according to Ceris Jones, climate change advisor for the National Farmers’ Union. ‘The dry winters we had in 2010 and 2011 left part of the industry close to bankruptcy because even those who were well prepared were running out of water,’ she says. ‘But the grotty summer of 2011 meant that there was a risk of not being able to harvest crops. That has long-term consequences, a knock-on effect for farmers for two or three years.’

The 2010–11 seasons cost the industry some £1.3billion, she says, knocking 14 per cent off the bottom line of the farming sector. For those farming marginal land, it could spell the difference between survival or not.

 

DISEASE THREAT

And, Jones says, the arrival in the UK of blue tongue, a disease that was first found in South Africa, is a ‘clear example of how climate change is having an impact on British farmers’. Historically, the disease made only brief, sporadic incursions into Europe’s fringes, but since 1998, six strains of the virus have spread across at least 12 European countries and at least 800 kilometres further north than had previously been reported.

It’s carried by a midge and its spread was limited by the fact that the insect vector was killed off during winter. There was speculation that higher temperatures were allowing
the virus to persist for longer during winter and its main midge vector species to expand northwards. And sure enough, a 2011 study found concrete evidence that recent outbreaks
of the disease across Europe were linked to climate change.

The disease was first reported in the UK in 2007, and has killed 30–35 per cent of sheep flocks that it has infected. ‘It wouldn’t have appeared on the shores of the UK if the temperature hadn’t warmed sufficiently for the midge to survive,’ Jones says.

 

SALINITY THREAT

In low-lying coastal areas, sea-level rise is beginning to have a significant impact on agricultural production. In Kiribati, a small Pacific island nation, changes in rainfall patterns, rising sea levels and storm surges are leading to salt contamination of freshwater resources and soil. Taro, once the most abundant crop on the islands is increasingly being killed by saline intrusion, as are coconut palms and fruit trees. According to a report by the Ministry of Health and Medical Services there has been an overall deterioration of health, with 60 per cent of children under the age of ten suffering from Vitamin A deficiencies and malnutrition.

In Bangladesh, rising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal are encroaching on the vast flat agricultural lands of the fertile Ganges Delta, resulting in increasing levels of soil salinity. A 2010 study found that salt-affected areas in ten coastal districts of Bangladesh had increased by more than a quarter to more than 950,000 hectares between 1973 and 2009. In some districts, the salinity level had almost doubled.

There was also an increasing trend of salinity in a number of the local rivers, while waterlogged areas had also more than doubled, from 62,000 hectares in 1975–76 to 148,000 hectares in 2008–09. This was due to a combination of factors, including seasonal submergence and tidal surges.

Although a trend towards planting salt-tolerant varieties of rice is helping some farmers just about hold their own, many are facing disaster. A 2012 survey of 360 farming households in four villages in the delta found that 80 per cent of respondents experienced high salinity in their rice fields, compared to two per cent and 13 per cent ten and five years ago respectively. The farmers reported that almost all salt-free and low-salinity farmland had turned into medium- or high-salinity farmland, which had a severe impact on agricultural productivity. Three quarters of respondents reported declining rice production, with more than 60 per cent saying that they faced a food crisis during at
least some of the year.

 

LIVING IN HOPE

So where’s the hope, if indeed there is any? The answers are often simple: mulching, composting, using forms of irrigation that can cope with limited water and planting drought-resistant crops.

Small-scale farmers in developing countries are already implementing these strategies, with the help of development NGOs. But the big changes need to come at an international level, says Oxfam’s head of economic justice, Hannah Stoddart. ‘It’s not all doom and gloom if we can mobilise political action and if we can kick the fossil-fuel habit in the North,’ she says. ‘We can prevent the worst impacts of climate change. It’s eminently possible. But we need the political will to make that happen.’

And how hopeful are you that this will happen, I ask. ‘I remain hopeful,’ she says. Are you perhaps crossing your fingers when you say this? She smiles and doesn’t deny it, but the future of agriculture is going to need more than hope if it’s to remain secure.

This story was published in the March 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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