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CLIMATE CHANGE: Africa, South Asia Could Face Famines

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Feb 1 2008 (IPS) - Climate change will cause major disruptions in the global food system, and adaptation to those changes needs to begin immediately, experts say.

Otherwise one-fifth of the world&#39s population could starve and millions of others become climate refugees, forced by heat and drought to abandon their lands and hunt for food elsewhere in the coming decades.

To prevent this nightmarish future, researcher David Lobell says the world community should focus its efforts where climate threats are likely to make the greatest impacts.

"We used historical data to determine what food-producing regions of the world were most sensitive to changes in temperature and rainfall," said Lobell, author of the study published in the journal Science today.

"Impoverished regions of Southern Africa and South Asia will be hit first and hardest by climate change," Lobell told IPS from his office at Stanford University&#39s Programme on Food Security and the Environment.

Other climate risk hot spots include Central America and Brazil. The analysis compared 20 climate change models for those areas and determined that average temperatures would rise one-degree Celsius in most areas by 2030.

An already hungry Southern Africa could face a 30-percent decline in maize production in the next two decades. Production of other staples like millet and rice are projected to fall by at least 10 percent, the analysis found.

"Rainfall and temperatures in the region are changing quite fast," Lobell said.

Maize requires a great deal of water and rich soils – or lots of fertiliser – so it is not the best crop for regions that will get drier. Drought-resistant sorghum might be a better choice for farmers to plant from now on, Lobell suggested. In other areas, crops could be planted earlier than normal to avoid heat-related losses in summer.

Still, these strategies won&#39t be enough for some regions and they&#39ll require more expensive remedies, including new crop varieties and expanded irrigation.

Knowing these regions will only become hotter and drier provides a target for adaptation. However, making changes in agriculture and food production is difficult and complex.

"Innovations in policy are needed – not in technology," said Geoff Tansey, a food policy researcher, writer and editor of a number of books on food policy, including the forthcoming "The Future Control of Food".

"Extreme weather events are already reducing crop yields," Tansey told IPS.

Because agriculture is a local activity, solutions need to be local, but most impoverished regions don&#39t have the financial or research capacity to make improvements. Solutions imposed from outside are unlikely to work. Efforts to use crop varieties or production methods from North America or Europe have largely failed. Those systems are heavily reliant on cheap fossil fuels for fertilisers and large machinery and are widely considered unsustainable.

With climate change, the best strategy for agriculture is diversity not monocultures, says Tansey, who has worked in many parts of Africa. And by diversity he means not only diversity of crops but of information and knowledge, approaches to farming and diversity of income.

"A marriage of traditional, local knowledge with modern science offers the best hope," Tansey said.

Much of the current agricultural research has been privatised and produces only products that can be patented and sold. There has been a major shift in the past two decades away from public research in agriculture, he warns. The most effective improvements needed to adapt to climate change could be as simple as finding ways for farmers to share their knowledge with each other or by increasing organic matter in soils with manures and crop residues.

"I was intrigued that the Stanford analysis didn&#39t consider soil quality," said Dan Richter, a soil scientist at Duke University in North Carolina.

Soil, temperature and water are the main factors in agriculture. "How extensively and intensively we can push soils and for how long is not known," Richter told IPS.

Around the world, soils are in decline, largely because of the focus on increasing crop yields. Agriculture depends on using solar energy from the sun to recycle nutrients from the soils into crops that we eat. However, if the nutrients removed from the soils are not replaced, soils become depleted. Recent research has found that chemical fertilisers do not replace these nutrients but rather mask declining soil quality.

Equally important is the problem of soil erosion. As reported by IPS last September, 100,000 square kilometres of land becomes degraded or turns into desert every year.

However, climate change is expected to boost agriculture output in some countries such as Canada and Russia, which would have longer growing seasons. That raises equity issues and requires a rethinking of global grain stocks, and whether these should remain largely in private hands and where they should be physically stored, says Tansey.

"What is clear is that there are serious flaws in a (current) food system that globally leaves more than 850 million people undernourished and over one billion overweight (300 million of them obese)," he wrote.

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