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Food and Agriculture

Small Farmers Buffeted by Climate Change

Kenyan farmer Geoffrey Ndung’u adapted to a prolonged drought and now earns a living growing watermelon. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

ROME, Jun 15 2013 (IPS) - The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has long warned that a quarter of the world’s farmland is “highly degraded”.

The main culprits are natural disasters, including droughts, floods and desertification. These pressures have now reached critical levels, with climate change expected to worsen the situation, according to the FAO’s annual report The State of Food and Agriculture, released here.

"Farmers urgently need support to increase the diversity of seed varieties that they can save and grow." -- Teresa Anderson of the Gaia Foundation

At the 38th session of FAO’s biannual conference, currently underway in Rome, three major issues on the table are the high level of undernourishment, volatile food prices and sustainable agricultural productivity.

The United Nations said up to 12 percent of Africa’s agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) is being lost due to environmental degradation, with comparable figures for countries in Latin America varying from six percent in Paraguay to about 24 percent in Guatemala.

According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), food yields in Uzbekistan have declined by 20 to 30 percent, while in East Africa nearly 3.7 million people still require food aid following the 2011 drought.

“Business as usual is no longer an option,” said UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja.

“Desertification, land degradation and drought are key constraints to building social and environmental resilience, achieving global food security and delivering meaningful poverty reduction,” he added.

Mohamed Adow, global advisor on climate change at the UK-based Christian Aid, which promotes sustainable development and battles hunger and global poverty, told IPS, “Climate change remains the significant challenge facing food security.”

Extreme and less predictable weather patterns are having the first and hardest impacts on food production, which in turn affects those who are least able to protect themselves, he added.

Adow said that with just the current 0.8 C rise in global temperatures, the world is suffering from increased hunger, disease, floods and sea level rise.

“And this is predicted to worsen given the abysmally weak climate pollution targets in developed countries,” he noted.

This means that year after year, the numbers of people needing food aid and adaptation support are increasing as the effects of climate change exceed the coping limits of the poor, and as more people go hungry.

Developed countries have a responsibility and obligation to take decisive action to support adaptation and increase opportunities to develop sustainable climate-resilient livelihoods all over the world, Adow declared.

Teresa Anderson of the London-based Gaia Foundation, which advocates secure land, seed, food and water sovereignty, told IPS one of the key reasons for the existence of the U.N. climate convention is to address the inevitable impacts that climate change and increasingly erratic weather will have on food production.

Less rain, more rain, rain coming at unpredictable times – all this affects the germination and growth of crops, she pointed out.

Changing temperatures that are too high or too low can also reduce growth and pollination. And different pests and diseases are likely to emerge in different climatic conditions.

“To deal with these multiple challenges, farmers urgently need support to increase the diversity of seed varieties that they can save and grow, while improving soil health,” said Anderson.

Unfortunately, the growth of agribusiness focused on selling fertilisers and just a few types of seed, is making farming even more vulnerable to climate change, she added.

In addition, communities reliant on fishing and livestock grazing may find the ecosystems on which they rely producing less fish or grass.

Anderson said many communities will also face extreme weather events such as floods, hurricanes and droughts, as well as slow-onset impacts such as rising sea levels and salination that will make food production impossible.

Meanwhile, a report released at the climate change talks in Bonn last week by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) said the cloudy aspects of climate forecasts are no excuse for a paralysis in agriculture adaptation policies.

“Climate projections will always have a degree of uncertainty, but we need to stop using uncertainty as a rationale for inaction,” said Sonja Vermeulen, head of research at CGIAR’s research programme on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS) and lead author of the study.

“Even when our knowledge is incomplete, we often have robust grounds for choosing best-bet adaptation actions and pathways, by building pragmatically on current capacities in agriculture and environmental management, and using projections to add detail and to test promising options against a range of scenarios,” she said.

The CCAFS analysis shows how decision-makers can sift through the different gradients of scientific uncertainty to understand where there is, in fact, a general degree of consensus and then move to take action.

Moreover, she said, it encourages a broader approach to agriculture adaptation that looks beyond climate models to consider the socioeconomic conditions on the ground. These conditions, such as a particular farmer’s or community’s capacity to make the necessary changes, will determine whether a particular adaptation strategy is likely to succeed.

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