'India is likely to experience strong relative impacts of climate change'

Overexploitation of groundwater reservoirs and dependence of surface water reservoirs on monsoon rainfall may lead to decreasing freshwater availability for agriculture in the country

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Published: Monday 06 July 2015

A book published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that global warming will affect food production and lead to a reduction of nutritional properties of major crops.

Aziz Elbehri, senior economist, trade and markets division, FAO, and editor of the book Climate Change and Food Systems, tells Down To Earth how food availability will be climate driven in the years to come.

How is climate change related to food production and how important it is in determining its availability worldwide?

There are many ways (in) which climate change impacts food production. Climate change is manifested through changes in temperature (and) precipitation patterns, all of which affect plant, animal and fish growth processes, and hence, production.

Climate change also impacts food production through changes in water availability. Many water-stressed regions such as north Africa, Middle East, western USA, northern China, parts of India and Australia are expected to face heightened food production constraints from climate-induced water scarcity.

Some studies have reported that without additional productivity improvements, climate change would reduce crop yields between -20 and -45 per cent for maize, between -5 and -50 per cent for wheat, between -20 and -30 per cent for rice, and between -30 and -60 per cent for soybean.

What is more challenging to agriculture at present—increasing population pressure or local climate changes?

Climate change is only one of the major drivers, (affecting) future food availability. The other factors include population growth, economic growth, changing food consumption patterns and the extent of degradation of natural resources.

Both population growth and climate change are reinforcing each other in causing greater stress on agriculture. (As) population is growing steadily, the climate change challenge is expected to increase in intensity. Already at present, we are beginning to witness the consequences of the climate warming of the past 50 years with increased heat waves, extreme droughts and noticeable changes in seasonal patterns, all of which affect food production and availability.

In what ways farmers can increase crops yields and also at the same time practise sustainable agriculture?

There are different ways to increase yields and the model to use varies according to the context. In the 20th century, farmers in industrialised countries managed to increase yields through technological innovations, improved management, access to markets and policy support. In Asia, the green revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s increased yields of wheat and rice.

The challenge we face today is how to improve yields while at the same preserve the declining natural resources upon which the future productive capacity depends. The challenge is how to continue with yield improvements through crop intensification in a sustainable way.

Agriculture sustainability implies efficient use of resources coupled with conservation, protection and enhancement (of) natural ecosystems that sustain food production systems. FAO has been promoting the sustainable crop intensification programme (“save and grow”) and the concept of “climate-smart agriculture” which aims to achieve crop intensification, climate adaptation and mitigation.

How the increasing global demand for agricultural commodities putting pressure on land use?

There are several forces that combine to place increasing pressure on land use. Population growth and changing food consumption patterns are fuelling food production. Given that crop yields growth has slowed down in recent decades, in part due to slower agricultural research investments, more land is being brought under cultivation to meet (the) demand. This land use change can lead in some cases to deforestation.

Changes in consumption patterns, especially for meat and dairy, have also pushed grazing into forest lands More recently, the growth of biofuels has added to the competition as lands used for crops are now (being) used to produce biofuels.

You have said developing nations are more vulnerable to climate changes. Why is it so?

Convergent results are showing that climate change will fundamentally alter global food production patterns. Impacts on crop productivity are largely negative in low latitude and tropical regions (where most developing countries are located) and somewhat positive in high latitude regions (where most developed countries are located). 

There are many indications showing that developing countries around the tropical regions will be relatively worse hit than Nordic countries (northern Europe, parts of Russia, Canada). For the latter, multiple cropping systems can even become feasible in future with possible increases in productivity. In the case of Europe, there is a considerable agreement that climatic suitability will improve cultivation.

For Africa, projected yield impacts are for the most part negative, except for areas that will experience higher rainfall and some elevated areas, which would benefit from increased temperature.

Many regions in low latitudes are expected to be negatively affected by reduced freshwater, including heavily irrigated areas in India, China and Egypt.

Low-lying-lands in Asia and other regions will be negatively impacted by the sea level rising (SLR). This is particularly a concern for farmers in Asian countries that grow rice along the river deltas and low-lying areas, and are therefore, prone to SLR, such as the Vietnamese Mekong Delta and the Ganges-Brahmaputra region.

How can Indian farmers mitigate the negative impacts of climate change and at the same time maintain optimum crop production?

India is likely to experience strong relative impacts of climate change and it is a top global producer of many crops. While India’s strong network of irrigation systems can help withstand some of the impacts of more erratic rainfall under climate change, the overexploitation of groundwater reservoirs and the dependence of surface water reservoirs on monsoon rainfall may lead to decreasing freshwater availability for agriculture and reduce productivity.

How India’s farmers can mitigate the impacts of climate change can only be answered within a particular local context. Assuming that a proper, multi-disciplinary impact assessment of climate on local farming systems is carried (out), the possible set of solutions will vary according to the situation at hand.  Solutions need to be based on the principals of sustainable intensification and on adaptation and mitigation practices with co-benefits for food production and security.
How will climate change affect the global food trade? Apart from pushing up food prices, what will be the other implications?

Economic models show that trade can cushion against large production shocks due to climate and, if unrestricted, trade is expected to increase to compensate for production shortages or shifts for production patterns across regions due to climate.

Trade flows would increase from mid-to-high latitude to the low latitude regions, where production and export potential will be reduced. Climate change is also projected to cause wide variations in the net global food supply due to a higher frequency of droughts and extreme weather events.

Trade can also affect climate change. Increased economic activity, including trade, also increases (green house gas) GHG emissions. In some developing countries, with weak environmental laws, growing demands for food crops drive the expansion of production for exports (maize, rice, biofuel and feedstocks). In other cases, unregulated exports of forest products can exacerbate deforestation, land degradation and loss of biodiversity.

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