A recent report by The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), offers new insight into the threat that climate change poses to the livelihood of millions of farmers worldwide. The report, Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics, maps areas at risk of crossing “climate thresholds – temperatures too hot for maize or beans,” by 2050.
These threshold models were compared against food insecure countries, defined as places where over 40 percent of children under the age of five experienced stunted growth as a result of malnutrition. When these two factors overlap, the model “reveals places around the world where the arrival of stressful growing conditions could be especially disastrous,” says Polly Ericksen, a senior scientist at the CGIAR’s International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
Within these hotspots, “there are 265.7 million food-insecure people living in agriculture intensive areas that are highly exposed to a potential five percent decrease in the length of the growing period” according to a press release announcing the results of the report. This may sound like a small reduction but “these are areas highly exposed to climate shifts, where survival is strongly linked to the fate of regional crop and livestock yields, and where chronic food problems indicate that farmers are already struggling and they lack the capacity to adapt to new weather patterns,” explains Ericksen.
CGIAR emphasizes that “growing seasons of at least 120 days are considered critical not only for the maturation of [wheat] and several other staple food crops, but also for vegetation crucial to feeding livestock.” But, according to their projections, “prime growing conditions are likely to drop below 120 days per season in intensively farmed regions of northeast Brazil and Mexico” by 2050.
Furthermore, according to the press release, “there are 170.5 million food-insecure and crop-dependent people in parts of West Africa, India and China who live in areas where, by the mid-2050s, maximum daily temperatures during the growing season could exceed 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).” At these temperatures maize, rice, and bean yields are expected to decline.
CGIAR researcher Patti Kristjanson says that the report signals that farmers will have to develop new ways to adjust to climate change. “Farmers already adapt to variable weather patterns by changing their planting schedules or moving animals to different grazing areas” she explains. But “what this study suggests is that the speed of climate shifts and the magnitude of the changes required to adapt could be much greater”, she concludes.
This means that farmers need to consider growing different crops. Due to its temperature sensitivity, wheat might be replaced with indigenous crops, like sorghum or cassava, which are better adapted to changing climate conditions. Farmers will also need to adopt farming systems, such as agroforestry, that help them to maintain and increase food production, according the report. The report’s co-author, Philip Thornton, stresses that while innovations can help countries develop agricultural practices that address challenges presented by climate change, time is limited. “Major adaptation efforts are needed now if we are to avoid serious food security and livelihood problems later,” he explained.
Grant Potter is an executive assistant at the Worldwatch Institute and Graham Salinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.