Don’t ignore climate change’s assault on food security
A projection by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists that as many as 80 million people were at risk of hunger by mid-century, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Central America, should not be overlooked by us here in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.
That projection came from the scientists’ most recent assessment of the threat that extreme weather, prompted by climate change, is having on global agriculture, even in temperate zones previously spared.
Pointing out that agriculture is both a cause and victim of global warming, the scientists reminded us that increased temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of extreme weather events are putting food security at risk.
The IPCC estimates that droughts caused a 25 per cent loss in crop yields globally from 1961-2006 and singled them out as “a major driver of yield reductions”.
In a 2019 report, the IPCC estimated that, if planet Earth warms between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, drought-related loss will increase nine to 12 per cent for wheat crops and more than 18 per cent for rice by 2100.
In November we reported that the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, in its last report on gross domestic product (GDP) out-turns, said that the agriculture sector — which was among the goods-producing industries to have returned a negative output — contracted by 8.1 per cent during the April-June quarter.
The report, though preliminary, largely attributed that performance to adverse drought conditions over the period, which resulted in declines in crops reaped and crop yields across most groups.
As if the drought was not bad enough, we experienced devastating flooding later in the year, resulting in at least $274 million in damage to the agriculture sector.
This swing in extreme weather conditions only makes matters worse for developing countries that, because of their limited capacity to adapt plus their geographic location in warmer parts of the Earth, are more susceptible to the effects of global warming on agriculture than developed countries.
Experts tell us that approximately 60 per cent of the world’s food grows from rain-fed agriculture, with the remainder aided by irrigation.
Given the unchecked increase in global temperature, demand for irrigation will most likely spiral, because crops need more water to compensate for transpiration. As such, produce with high water content, such as tomatoes and melons, will be particularly challenged.
The IPCC suggests there are ways to adapt agriculture to rising temperatures, such as shifting to less water-intensive crops, using drought-resistant seeds, reducing soil erosion, and adopting efficient irrigation systems.
Those suggestions make sense, but as the scientists point out, those strategies are “much less effective at 2 or 3 degrees Celsius which, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, is the path on which the Earth is heading by 2100.
As we have said before, many countries, particularly small island developing states, are not in a position to absorb an exacerbation of those conditions. It is therefore important that governments ensure that policies designed to tackle climate change are implemented. And, just as important, citizens of all countries need to do all that they can to mitigate or, better, eliminate the effects of global warming.