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Climate Change and Agriculture: Building Resilience

January 7, 2013

This article is cross-posted from the Feed the Future blog. Feed the Future is the United States Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. It supports country-driven approaches to address the root causes of hunger and poverty and forge long-term solutions to chronic food insecurity and undernutrition. Drawing upon resources and expertise of agencies across the U.S. Government, this Presidential Initiative is helping countries transform their own agriculture sectors to sustainably grow enough food to feed their people.

Feed the Future strategies for food security are designed not only to accelerate agriculture-led growth and reduce undernutrition, but also to encourage sustainable and equitable management of land, water, fisheries, and other resources. Feed the Future Intern Christopher Chapman asked CIMMYT’s conservation agriculture expert Bruno Gerard (pictured left) how climate change relates to agricultural development.

1. How are climate change and agriculture related?

Gerard: All plants depend on water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide to perform photosynthesis; the degree to which each species needs each of these things is variable. Climate change is induced by higher levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which alone is good for crops because it makes it easier for plants to pull the carbon dioxide from the air.

Unfortunately, increased greenhouse gas in the atmosphere also changes the radiative and energy balance of the Earth, leading to warmer temperatures. The increasing temperatures in turn influence global weather patterns, altering the amount, frequency and distribution of rainfall. There are and will be some places in which these effects are positive, while in other places they’re expected to be devastating.

One thing farmers throughout the world have had to deal with is variability in climate. There are always good years and bad years, but climate change is likely to exacerbate extremes in climatic conditions in most regions of the world. Agriculture itself is contributing significantly to global warming by emitting greenhouse gases. Crop production uses fossil fuels for mechanized operations, irrigation, and fertilizer production.

2. What do you see as the most promising approach to tackle these problems?

Gerard: There are no silver bullets to tackle climate change issues in agriculture, but there is a broad set of actions and measures to develop and implement in an integrated manner. This means working at different scales and integrating policy, technical, socio-economic, and ethical matters, and going beyond the agriculture domain. This process should include famers—the primary stakeholders—to maximize diversity and ensure appropriate and adaptable solutions. Under this framework, science and research have a clear role to play by following these steps:

1. Develop predictive capabilities to better understand what the situation could be in 5, 10 or 50 years. Again, this includes climate change issues but also other drivers of changes such as demographic growth, spread of technology, land use changes, market changes, policy changes, and local and global food security.

2. Use predictions to develop sustainable technical and socio-economic solutions. Solutions should:

  • Use resources efficiently;
  • Diminish risks;
  • Be adoptable, adaptable, equitable, and profitable (that is, solutions must continue on their own once properly introduced). And, as much as possible, solutions should be friendly to the environment. This is in line with the “sustainable intensification” approach outlined in the Feed the Future research strategy (see Part I of this blog series).

3. Act now in adapting and implementing resource-efficient, risk-reducing practices.

3. What is meant by being “resilient” to climate change, and how can we get there?

Gerard: Resilience is a physics term meaning the property to go back to an original state after a “deformation” resulting from stress. The broader use of resilience can mean many things in different situations, especially agriculture. But resilience by itself does not mean the situation is desirable or not. Other criteria like profitability, stability, social acceptability, and environmental issues need to be considered.

For example, take an area that is shocked by a drought. In ecological terms that area is resilient if the natural vegetation can recover to normal levels in a few years. For an ecosystem inhabited by humans who need to eat, that would not be acceptable; so other forms of resilience would be needed. Improving the resilience of agro-ecosystems is multi-faceted and is usually targeted at mitigating the effects of the drought.

The effects of a drought can be avoided by:

  • Breeding crop varieties that are resistant to drought;
  • Growing multiple varieties and species of crops, knowing some are better at surviving drought so the risk is spread out;
  • Using fertilizer inputs to improve water use efficiency in nutrient-poor environments;
  • Adopting crop management practices such as conservation agriculture, which uses water and nutrients more efficiently.

Social components of resilience (e.g., safety nets and solidarity) can also be important in helping the farmers survive and recover from drought. Economic resilience allows farmers who lost money after a drought to continue farming with new inputs the next season. Farming systems become more resilient when banks and credit unions allow farmers to save money when times are good and use that money to plant again after a bad season. Many small farms in the developing world are mixed crop-livestock enterprises and livestock is playing a critical role in helping farmers to survive and recover from shocks.

There are many potential innovations to build resilience, all helping in their own way. We need to take the lessons learned in one area of the world and share them with farmers in others to implement them in an integrated manner with a focus on improving livelihoods.