Tag Archives: Food

Rising heat hits Indian wheat crop

 

Feeling the heat: crop harvests in India yielding less Image: Yann via Wikimedia Commons
Feeling the heat: the yield from wheat harvests in India is falling
Image: Yann via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Satellite imaging highlights the growing need to change agricultural practices in South Asia as higher average temperatures cause the reduction of crop yields on the Indo-Gangetic plain.

LONDON, 28 July, 2014 − Researchers in the UK have established a link between changing climate and agriculture that could have significant consequences for food supplies in South Asia.

They have found evidence of a relationship between rising average temperatures in India and reduced wheat production, which was increasing until about a decade ago but has now stopped.

The researchers, Dr John Duncan, Dr Jadu Dash and Professor Pete Atkinson, all geographers at the University of Southampton, say an intensification is predicted for the recent increases in warmth in India’s main wheat belt that are damaging crop yields.

The greatest impact that the hotter environment has on wheat, they say, comes from a rise in night-time temperatures.

Vulnerability

Dr Dash said: “Our findings highlight the vulnerability of India’s wheat production system to temperature rise. We are sounding an early warning to the problem, which could have serious implications in the future and so needs further investigation.”

The team is the first to use satellite imagery to establish the link between warming and crop yields. The images were taken at weekly intervals, from 2002 to 2007, of the wheat-growing seasons to measure the “vegetation greenness” − an indicator of crop yield.

The imagery, of the north-west Indo-Gangetic plain, was taken at such a high resolution that it was able to capture variations in local agricultural practices. The plains stretch over much of northern and eastern India, and into parts of Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The data was then compared with climate and temperature information for the area to examine the effect on growth and development of the crop.

The study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, found that warmer temperatures reduced crop yield. Greater warmth during the reproductive and ripening periods, in particular, had “a significant negative impact on productivity”. But it was the warmer nights that did the greatest harm.

In some parts of the Indian wheat belt, growers have been advancing their growing season to make sure that the most sensitive point of the crop growth cycle falls within a cooler period. But in the long term, the researchers say, this will not help, because of the high average temperature rises predicted.

Dr Dash said farmers would have to think seriously about changing to more heat-tolerant wheat varieties. “Currently in India, 213 million people are food insecure and over 100 million are reliant on the national food welfare system, which uses huge quantities of wheat,” he said.

Regular data

“We hope that soon we will be able to examine agricultural practices in even greater detail, with the launch of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites, which will provide regular data at even higher spatial resolution.”

In 2012, India was the world’s second largest wheat producer, with 94.9 million tonnes. It was self-sufficient and able to sell some wheat overseas, although the government has now limited exports.

India’s production was exceeded only by China’s. But China is building up its reserves of wheat, and is now widely seen as working more energetically than many developing countries for an ambitious global climate change agreement.

Dr Dash told the Climate News Network: “Ten years ago, India’s yield of wheat was increasing. Today, it’s stagnant − and the predictions are that, by 2050, average temperatures will be 5% higher than they are now. This is a wake-up call for the whole of South Asia.” − Climate News Network

Win-win way to aid food security and climate

Water pressure: rice fields in China use huge amounts of water Image: Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons
Water pressure: rice fields in China use huge amounts of irrigation water
Image: Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US believe they have identified a way to feed billions more people, while at the same reducing the strains and stresses on the environment.

LONDON, 23 July, 2014 − Imagine being able to contain greenhouse gas emissions, make fertilizer use more efficient, keep water waste to a minimum, and put food on the table for the 10 billion people crowded into the planet’s cities, towns and villages by the end of the century.

An impossible dream? Not according to Paul West, co-director and lead scientists of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

He and research colleagues report in the journal Science that if government, industry, business and agriculture set about choosing the best crops for local conditions and then used resources in the most efficient way, the world could be fed on existing land with the least damage to the global environment.

Fresh thinking

This is thinking big: the global view of immediate and local problems. The researchers selected three key areas with the greatest potential for reducing environmental damage while boosting food supply. They thought about water use, food waste, greenhouse gas emissions and polluting run-off from farmland and where fresh thinking could make the most difference in the most efficient way.

They focused on cotton and the 16 food crops that produce 86% of the world’s calories from 58% of the global cropland area. They identified a series of what they called “global leverage points”, and those countries where application of such thinking could make the biggest difference.

The first challenge is to produce more food on existing land. They see an “agricultural yield gap” − that is, a difference between what soil actually produces and what it could produce− in many parts of the world.

And they point out that, in those places where the gaps are widest, simply to close even half those gaps would produce more than 350 million tonnes of additional grain and supply the energy needs of 850 million people − most of them in Africa, plus some in Asia and eastern Europe.

Half of these gains could be made in just 5% of the total harvested area of these crops. Co-incidentally, 850 million is very roughly the number of people the UN currently estimates to be severely malnourished.

The researchers based all their calculations on existing conditions, while recognising that climate change could force people to think again. But the study identified ways to grow food most efficiently, while at the same limiting the impact on climate.

Forests cleared

Agriculture is responsible for somewhere between 30% and 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but much of this is because tropical forests are being cleared for farmland. Methane from livestock and from rice fields supplies much of the rest.

Brazil and Indonesia, with the planet’s largest reserves of forest, are places where one set of actions could make a big difference. China and India, which produce more than half the world’s rice, are others.

China, India and the US between them emit more than half of all oxides of nitrogen from the world’s cropland, and wheat, maize and rice account for 68% of these emissions.

Rice and wheat are the crops that create most demand for irrigation, which in turn accounts for 90% of global water consumption. More than 70% of irrigation happens in India, China, Pakistan and the US, and just by concentrating of more efficient use, farmers could deliver the same yield and reduce water demand by 15%.

Crops now grown as animal food could supply the energy needs of 4 billion people, and most of this “diet gap” is in the US, China and Western Europe.

Wasted food

In addition, between 30% and 50% of all food is wasted, and the waste of animal food is the worst. To discard a kilogram of boneless beef is the same as throwing away 24 kilos of wheat. Waste reduction in the US, China and India alone could provide food for an additional 400 million people.

The paper is not a plan of action, but rather an identification of where the firmest concerted action could make the biggest differences.

“By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good,” Dr West says.

“By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment.” – Climate News Network

Climate puts US at risk of multi-billion bill

Overheating: US crops such as cotton face a %20 drop in yield Image: Wars via Wikinmedia Commons
Overheated economy: US crops such as cotton face a 20% drop in yield
Image: Wars via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

A study of the possible cost of climate change to the US economy warns government and business that billions of dollars could be at risk through damage to property, reduced harvests and workers incapacitated by extreme heat.

LONDON, 29 June, 2014 − The sheer economic cost of climate change to Americans could be far greater than many realise, an influential study says.

The study was commissioned by the Risky Business Project, a research organisation chaired by a bi-partisan panel and supported by several former US Treasury Secretaries.

It expects climate change to have varied impacts across different regions and industries. Rising sea levels, it says, could destroy many billion dollars’ worth of coastal properties by 2050, and warming temperatures, especially in the south, south-west and mid-west, could cut the productivity of people working outdoors by 3%.

Without a change in crops, harvests in these regions could fall by 14%. But further north, in states such as North Dakota and Montana, winter temperatures will probably rise, reducing frost and cold-related deaths and lengthening the growing season for some crops.

Kate Gordon, executive director of the Risky Business Project, said : “We still live in a single integrated national economy, so just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean you won’t feel the heat of climate change.”

Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, said: “Damages from storms, flooding, and heat waves are already costing local economies billions of dollars. We saw that firsthand in New York City with Hurricane Sandy.

Costs of inaction

“With the oceans rising and the climate changing, the Risky Business report details the costs of inaction in ways that are easy to understand in dollars and cents − and impossible to ignore.”

Hank Paulson, a former Treasury Secretary and co-chair of the Risky Business Project, said the report shows us that “our economy is vulnerable to an overwhelming number of risks from climate change.

“But if we act immediately, we can still avoid most of the worst impacts of climate change and significantly reduce the odds of catastrophic outcomes. But the investments we’re making today will determine our economic future.”

In a section on short-term climate threats, the authors say: “The American economy is already beginning to feel the effects of climate change. These impacts will likely grow materially over the next 5 to 25 years…”

“Just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean
you won’t feel the heat of climate change”

They say there is a 1-in-20 chance of yield losses of more than 20% in corn, wheat, soya and cotton crops over that timespan.

On energy, they say changes in temperature driven by greenhouse gases will probably mean a need to build roughly 200 average coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants between 2020 and 2045, costing up to $12 billion per year.

Climate impacts, the report says, are unusual because future risks are directly tied to present decisions. By failing to lower greenhouse gas emissions today, decision-makers put in place processes that increase overall risks tomorrow.

By 2050, on present trends, $66bn-$106bn worth of existing coastal property will probably be below sea level nationwide, with $238-$507bn worth by 2100.

By mid-century, the average American will probably see 27 to 50 days over 95°F (35°C) each year − two to more than three times the average annual number of such days seen over the last 30 years. By the end of the century, this number will probably average 45 to 96 days over 95°F each year.

But the study says that the south-west, south-east, and upper mid-west will probably see several months of 95°F days annually.

Human threshold

In the longer term, extreme heat during parts of the year could pass the threshold at which the human body can no longer maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning. At these times, anyone who has to work outdoors, or without access to air conditioning, will face severe health risks and possible death.

The authors say they hope it will become standard practice for the American business and investment community to factor climate change into its decision-making process. They say: “We are already seeing this response from the agricultural and national security sectors; we are starting to see it from the bond markets and utilities as well.

“But business still tends to respond only to the extent that these risks intersect with core short-term financial and planning decisions.”

And the authors warn the government: “We also know that the private sector does not operate in a vacuum, and that the economy runs most smoothly when government sets a consistent policy and a regulatory framework within which business has the freedom to operate.

“Right now, cities and businesses are scrambling to adapt to a changing climate without sufficient federal government support…” − Climate News Network

US corn’s gravy train faces derailment

 

A field of Maize in the Corn Belt state of South Dakota on the American Great Plains Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons
A ripening field of maize in the American Corn Belt state of South Dakota
Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The US produces enough corn in one year to fill a freight train stretching round the world, according to a recent study. But climate change and unsustainable use of water resources and fertilizers threaten this vast industry.

LONDON, 22 June, 2014 – One-third of cropland in the US is devoted to corn. It produces nearly 40% of the world’s corn, and a record harvest last year was valued at nearly $70 billion.

But now there are warnings that this mighty agricultural edifice – which supports not only farmers, but a legion of food and animal feed, transport and other companies, big and small − could be seriously damaged by a changing climate.

To make matters worse, increasingly scarce water supplies could also have an adverse effect, and so too could the intensification of growing techniques − in particular, the overuse of  fertilizers and pesticides.

A study by Ceres, a US not-for-profit group that lobbies for more environmental sustainability in the business sector, looks at the risks facing one of the country’s main industries.

Negative impact

States in the American Midwest and the Great Plains region – known as the Corn Belt − account for the bulk of corn production. But the study warns: “Record-breaking weather events – including prolonged drought, intense precipitation and high temperatures – are increasingly common in the Corn Belt and are negatively impacting corn yields and corporate profits.”

Floods in 2010/11 caused millions of dollars worth of crop losses in many areas. Lands were also degraded, and erosion increased. The following year there was drought, when the rains didn’t arrive and temperatures soared.

“The 2012/13 drought exemplified the vulnerability of the US corn supply chain to extreme weather,” the study says.

The bulk of US corn output goes either to animal feed or to the production of ethanol fuels, with only 10% going to food processing.

According to the report: “The 2012/13 drought had unusually severe financial impacts for many companies in the US corn value chain, hitting the meat and grain trading sectors particularly hard.

“Impacts ranged from interruptions to corn supply − which affected meat processing and ethanol refining activities − to operational challenges linked to insufficient water for manufacturing facilities, to low Mississippi river water levels that restrict transport of agricultural goods.”

While the percentage of corn production shipped abroad is relatively small, the US is still the world’s biggest corn exporter. Shortages or rising prices can have an adverse impact on the developing world, with the potential for outbreaks of serious social unrest.

The study points out that extreme weather events in recent years have resulted in large-scale price volatility. This in turn has led to what it calls riskier growing practices, with farmers and the big agricultural conglomerates seeking to cash in on rises in the market by using ever more fertilizer and pesticides on their lands.

The US government’s recent National Climate Assessment said the negative effects of climate change, such as higher temperatures and drought, would outweigh any positive impacts in the Midwest and Great Plains.

The Ceres study says corn is particularly sensitive to higher temperatures, and much of the corn is grown in regions where water supplies are already limited. In future, corn growing might have to move to cooler and more water-abundant areas further north.

Northward shift

“Higher temperatures and increased water stress mean that increased irrigation for corn will be required. Given limited water supply in parts of the Great Plains region, a northward shift in corn acreage is predicted, increasing the risk of stranded agricultural assets, such as processing, storage and transportation infrastructure.”

Costs, to the agricultural industry and to the US government are mounting. In 2012-13, the government’s Federal Crop Insurance Programme paid out a record $10.8 billion to farmers, mostly for reasons related to the drought.

Ceres says farmers and the large conglomerates that control increasing amounts of agricultural land must learn to farm more sustainably. In many cases, this means a less intensive crop regime.

There should be more measured use of fertilizers and pesticides. More efficient irrigations methods and charging systems that encourage less water use should also be implemented.

More mixed cropping should be introduced in order to preserve soil fertility, the report recommends. And companies should examine their supply chains, and pressure the farming sector to put in place better land practices.

Perhaps most controversially, Ceres has a simple message that is likely to cause a storm of anger across the Corn Belt: buy less corn. – Climate News Network

‘End high seas fishing for climate’s sake’

End of the line for the high seas fleets? It seems utopian, but there'd be benefits Image: Sensor via Wikimedia Commons

End of the line for the high seas fleets? It seems utopian, but there’d be benefits
Image: Sensor via Wikimedia Commons

Two scientists say fish from the high seas are too valuable to be eaten, because they lessen climate change through the carbon they consume.

LONDON, 8 June – Marine biologists have delivered the most radical proposal yet to protect biodiversity and sequester carbon: stop all fishing, they say, on the high seas.

The high seas are the stretches of ocean that nobody owns and nobody claims: they are beyond the 200-mile economic zones patrolled and sometimes disputed by national governments. They are also what climate scientists call a carbon sink, a natural source of carbon removal.

Life in the deep seas absorbs 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and buries half a billion tonnes of carbon on the sea bed every year, according to Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia in Canada and Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford in the UK. The two researchers put the value to humanity of life in the high seas – in terms of its ability to sequester carbon – at $148 billion a year.

Only a hundredth of the fish landed in all the ports in all the world is found on the high seas alone. And around 10 million tonnes of fish are caught by high seas fishing fleets each year, and sold for $16bn.

“Countries around the world are struggling to find cost-effective ways to reduce their carbon emissions. We’ve found that the high seas are a natural system that is doing a good job of it for free,” said Professor Sumaila.

“Keeping fish in the high seas gives us more value than catching them. If we lose the life on the high seas, we’ll have to find another way to reduce emissions at a much higher cost.”

Staying in the depths

But it isn’t just the high seas that sequester carbon. In a second study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, British and Irish researchers argue that deep sea fish remove and stow away more than a million tonnes of carbon dioxide just from waters around the British coasts and the Irish Sea. If this volume were valued as “carbon credits” it would add up to £10mn a year ($16.8mn).

The reasoning goes like this. Deep water fishes don’t rise to the surface, they depend on food that filters down to them from above. At mid water level, there is a huge and diverse ecosystem involving many species that rise to the surface to feed during the night and then sink back down again, and some of this reaches the depths.

Clive Trueman of the University of Southampton and colleagues measured ratios of isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the tissues of fish caught at depths between 500 and 1800 metres to calculate the original sources of food: more than half of these fish got their energy – their food supply – from fishes that went to the surface. But deep water fish, when they die, stay at depth. Their carbon doesn’t get back into the atmospheric system.

Research like this is done to solve the puzzles of the planetary ecosystem, but also to explore the options open to politicians who will one day have to confront the mounting costs of climate change.

The declaration of the high seas as “off limits” to all fishing sounds utopian, but fisheries scientists have repeatedly argued that present fishing regimes are not sustainable, and that radical steps must be taken.

Fish sanctuaries

Callum Roberts, of the University of York, UK, has been making the case for “marine parks”, or undisturbed ocean and shallow water wildernesses, for more than a decade.

Like pristine tropical rainforests, or protected wetlands and prairies, these would be nurseries and safe zones for rare or otherwise threatened species of plants and animals. But they would also serve as valuable carbon sinks. Either way, humans would benefit because the marine parks would slow global warming and limit climate change.

“The more abundant life is, and the more the seabeds are rich, complex and dominated by filter feeders that extract organic matter from the water, and creatures that bury matter in the mud, the more effective the seas will be as a carbon sink. Overfishing has diminished that benefit wherever it has taken place just at the time when we need it most,” Professor Roberts  told Climate News Network.

“I think the carbon sequestration argument is a strong one. The deep sea is probably the biggest carbon sink on the planet by virtue of its enormous size.

“It is incredibly important as a sink, because once carbon is trapped there, it is much harder for it to get re-released into the atmosphere than is the case for carbon sinks on land, like forests or peat bogs.”

Planetary benefits

Protection of fish on the high seas would also be good for fish stocks in the exclusive economic zones nearer the shores, where the global catch is more carefully managed, and where some areas are already protected.

This would benefit all nations where people depend on fishing or fish farming. At the moment, only a small number of nations maintain high seas fleets.

The Global Ocean Commission, which commissioned the high seas study,  claims that such a decision would make economic, social and ecological sense: the oceans supply “vital services” to humanity. They provide half of the planet’s oxygen, deliver nourishment for billions of people, and regulate the climate.

To protect the high seas could help offshore fish stocks, but demand for fish is likely to grow in step with population increases, and fish produce at least one sixth of the animal protein that humans consume.

The supply of “wild” fish caught by net or line peaked nearly two decades ago. The World Resources Institute believes that production of farmed fish and shellfish will have to increase by 133% by 2050. – Climate News Network

Europe faces cereals crop crash

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Cereal numbers: yields could be slashed from barley fields such as this one in Suffolk, UK Image: Eileen Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

Cereal failures: yields could be slashed from barley fields such as this one in Suffolk, England
Image: Eileen Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Two new studies raise concerns that Europe’s wheat and barley yields could be heading for a serious fall as a result of temperature rise and an increase in extreme weather

LONDON, 2 June − Harvests of wheat and barley across Europe could be 20% lower by 2040 as average temperatures rise by 2°C. And by 2060, European farmers could be facing very serious losses.

As the likelihood of weather extremes increases with temperature, the consequences of lower yields will be felt around the world. Europe produces, for example, 29% of the world’s wheat.

Two consecutive studies in Nature Climate Change examine the challenges faced by the farmers − the first of the reports being by a team led by Miroslav Trnka, of the Czech Global Change Research Centre in Brno.

They considered the impact of changing conditions in 14 very different wheat growing zones − from the Alpine north to the southern Mediterranean, from the great plains of Northern Europe to the baking uplands of the Iberian peninsula, and from the Baltic seascapes of Denmark to the fertile flood plains of the Danube.

It is a given that farmers are at the mercy of the weather, and that crops are vulnerable to unseasonal conditions. But a rise in average temperatures of 2°C is likely to increase the frequency of unfavourable conditions.

Incidence of drought

The researchers, therefore, factored in such data as the numbers of days with very high temperatures, the incidence of drought, late spring frosts, severe winter frosts with too little snow, spells with too much rain, spells when the weather is too cool at the wrong time.

Altogether, they totted up 11 sets of adverse conditions that could blight winter wheat in all 14 sample environments. They then used climate models to simulate the probability of things going wrong once, and also more than once, in any single growing season. And they found that, by 2060, the occurrence of adverse weather conditions would increase for all environments.

“This is likely to result in more frequent crop failure across Europe,” they conclude. “The study provides essential information for developing adaptation strategies.”

Adaptation strategies − according to Frances Moore and David Lobell, of Stanford University, California, in the second of the Nature Climate Change studies − are exactly what European cereal farmers should be thinking about.

They analysed the yield and profit records from thousands of European farms between 1989 and 2009. They then matched the data with climate records to test performance under a suite of different weather histories, and ran simulations using 13 different climate models.

“Modest amounts of climate change
can have a big impact on yields. . .”

“The results clearly showed that modest amounts of climate change can have a big impact on yields of several crops in Europe,” Moore said.

“This is a little surprising because the region is fairly cool, so you might think it would benefit from moderate amounts of warming. Our next step was to measure the potential of European farmers to adapt to these impacts.”

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should, in theory, be good for crops – fertility should increase – but a procession of recent scientific studies has painted a different picture.

Plant protein levels

With extra heat comes a greater likelihood of drought to slash maize yields.  And even when the extra carbon dioxide increases growth, it may reduce the levels of all-important plant protein in the yield.

In addition, extremes of heat at the wrong time in the growing season could devastate crops, while the change in average temperatures will open the way for invasions of new kinds of pest.

The Stanford researchers argue that what matters most is how quickly farmers in Europe can adapt, and how crop yields will respond.

“By adaptation, we mean a range of options based on existing technologies, such as switching varieties of a crop, installing irrigation, or growing a different crop,” Lobell said.

“These things have been talked about for a long time, but the novelty of this study was using past data to quantify the actual potential of adaptation to reduce climate change impacts.” – Climate News Network

Drought fuels World Cup blackouts fear

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Fading light at Sao Paulo's Corinthians Arena, venue for the opening WordCup match Image Edson Lopes Jr via Wikimedia Commons

Shadows and light: Sao Paulo’s Corinthians Arena, venue for the opening match of the World Cup
Image: Edson Lopes Jr via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

With only two weeks to go before the football World Cup kicks off in Brazil, the country’s worst drought in decades is severely reducing hydropower energy supplies as climate researchers warn of a serious trend that is also hitting agriculture

 LONDON, 29 May – Imagine the scene in the packed stadium: those magic boots dance as the winger flies down the touchline and crosses the ball perfectly into the penalty area, right on to the head of the striker. He rises, he heads the ball goalwards – and then the lights go out.

Although recent rains have brought some relief, many parts of Brazil are in the grip of the most severe drought for years, and temperatures have been unusually high. In many areas, reservoirs at hydro plants – which produce about 70% of Brazil’s power – are at record lows.

São Paulo state in the south-east, where the World Cup’s opening game will be staged on June 12, is home to more than 43 million people and is the country’s economic powerhouse. But it has been experiencing its worst drought since rainfall records began in 1930.

In order to keep the lights on, the government of President Dilma Rousseff has been desperately upping energy supplies from thermal power stations. But fears persist that blackouts will hit during the World Cup.

Public anger

If that happens, it’s likely to add to the anger felt by many Brazilians about the billions of dollars being spent on facilities for the football tournament – and on staging the Olympics next year.

To ward of public discontent, the government has been forced to spend the equivalent of more than US$5 billion to subsidise utilities that are having to replace hydro power with more expensive oil, coal and natural gas.

Analysts say consumers will have to pay substantially more for their energy, although price hikes are likely to be delayed until after elections in October. The government has also dismissed the idea of power rationing – for now at least.

While the government worries about power supplies, Brazil’s agriculture sector – which accounts for about 25% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product – is suffering potentially long-lasting drought damage.

Professor Hilton Silveira Pinto is a climate researcher at the Centre for Meteorological and Climate Research Applied to Agriculture at the University of Campinas. He told the Bloomberg news service: “This is a taste of what is to come in the future.”

Abandon lands

A study co-authored by Pinto warns that large numbers of farmers could be forced to abandon their lands and migrate to more temperate areas as temperatures rise. Coffee growers in the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais in the south-east have seen their crops fail due to record high temperatures, combined with drought conditions.

In Bahia state and other areas in the north-east of Brazil, farmers have lost crops and large numbers of livestock as the drought has persisted.

The study says projected future warming trends indicate that Brazil’s overall production of soybeans could decline by as much as 24% by 2020, with wheat production dropping even further.

That’s not just bad news for Brazil and millions of its farmers. Over recent decades, Brazil has emerged as one of the world’s leading agricultural producers, and is now the number one exporter of soybeans, beef, sugar, orange juice − and, of course, coffee.

Prices of these goods are set to rise internationally, so Brazil’s changing climate and its drought is likely to have an impact not just on World Cup football. – Climate News Network

Potatoes pioneer crops swap trail

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Potatoes native to the high Andes come in many shapes, sizes and colours Image: Edgar Amador Espinosa Montesinos via Wikimedia Commons

Potatoes native to the high Andes come in many shapes, sizes and colours
Image: Edgar Amador Espinosa Montesinos via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Small-scale farmers from as far apart as Peru, China and Bhutan have agreed to share indigenous crop varieties in a pioneering initiative to help adaptation to climate change.

LONDON, 21 May − A warming climate may confront any of us with unfamiliar problems. The upside, though, is that people half a world away from each other may already have some answers.

Small-scale farmers on two continents – from Yunnan in China and from Bhutan and Peru − are now working together to help their communities to adapt to the impacts of a hotter world.

They have agreed to share indigenous crop varieties, and the knowledge needed to grow them in different climates and landscapes, in a scheme that aims to maintain resilient food systems relying on a number of crops, not simply monocultures.

The aim is also to provide the farmers with secure access to seeds each season, and to protect “food sovereignty”, so that they retain control of their harvests without agribusiness intervening.

Food security

The agreement was reached in late April at a meeting in the Potato Park, near the high-altitude Peruvian city of Cusco. The Park conserves 1,460 different potato varieties to protect food security in the face of climate change.

For the moment, the agreement involves only potatoes, although other species may be included later. The tubers themselves will not be swapped, but only in vitro material   –  with scientists from Peru‘s International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima alert to preventing any unwitting transfer of parasites or diseases.

“This partnership represents a unique alliance forged by indigenous peoples to overcome the threats to agriculture and food security in a changing climate,” said Alejandro Argumedo, the director of not-for-profit Asociación ANDES, one of the scheme’s organisers.

He told the Climate News Network that there was no comparable scheme “with this particular focus on climate change adaptation and biocultural heritage innovation as key to resilience”.

“Although our communities are half a world apart,
they share similar concerns.”

Yiching Song, from the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: “Although our communities are half a world apart, they share similar concerns. Communities are stronger working together than apart.”

The head of CIP’s Gene Bank, David Ellis, said: “Achieving sustainable food security in a world with a growing population, changing diets and a changing climate is a major challenge. Alliances among farming communities and scientists, such as this one, are a critical element in the response to these challenges.”

Planting line

Farming communities in all three countries are already being affected by climate change, the scheme’s organisers say. They are experiencing higher temperatures, leading to more pests and reduced water availability. For example, in the Potato Park, high in the Peruvian Andes, glaciers are melting, and the top of the planting line has been reached, so farmers are having to find new areas to plant the potatoes.

Krystyna Swiderska, an agro-ecologist at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which helped to fund the farmers’ meeting, told the Network that the agreement was concentrating on species that would grow well in mountain conditions.

She said: “The focus will be on crops that perform well in harsh environments prone to droughts, frost, flooding, pests and so on, and on increasing diversity. The greater the diversity of crops th at communities have, the greater the chances of growing food in the face of increasingly extreme weather.”

Swiderska said Peru, Bhutan and China shared similar basic cultural values and traditional farming systems. The three countries also had been involved because they are participating in the Mountain Communities Initiative (MCI) meeting in Bhutan on climate change impacts, in the last week of May.

She believes that the Cusco agreement could work elsewhere. “The transfer of knowledge will be replicated at the MCI, which will involve 14 communities from 10 countries,” she said. “The transfer of seeds has not happened yet, but could potentially be replicated in other communities participating in the MCI and beyond.” − Climate News Network

Climate worries insurers and military

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US Navy personnel help with the clean-up in Staten Island, New York, after Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012 Image: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

The US Navy helps with the clean-up in New York state after Superstorm Sandy in 2012
Image: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Powerful voices in finance and the armed forces raise concerns about the risks of increasingly extreme weather events causing billions of dollars of damage and potentially igniting humanitarian disasters and regional conflicts

LONDON, 15 May − The risks associated with climate change have got some very important people worried − the people who pick up the bills, and those who clear up the mess or try to prevent it happening.

The world’s biggest and oldest insurance market, Lloyd’s of London, has published a report that urges insurers to include climate risks in their models. It says: “Scientific research points conclusively to the existence of climate change driven by human activity.

“Nevertheless, significant uncertainty remains on the nature and extent of the changes to our climate and the specific impacts this will generate. Many of the effects will become apparent over the coming decades and anticipating them will require forward projections, not solely historical data.”

Quoting the Munich Re insurance group , the World Bank says damage and weather-related losses around the world have increased from an annual average of $50bn in the 1980s to nearly $200bn over the last decade.

Causing havoc

The Lloyd’s report was published the day after the US National Climate Assessment (NCA) warned Americans that climate change is already causing havoc across the country. John Holdren, the White House science adviser, said the NCA was the “loudest and clearest alarm bell to date signalling the need to take urgent action to combat the threats to Americans from climate change”.

The most expensive year on record for natural disasters was 2011, when insured losses cost the industry more than $126bn. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy caused $35bn of insured losses, making it the most expensive hurricane in US history after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Lloyd’s report says a 20cm rise in sea level at the southern tip of Manhattan Island increased Sandy’s surge losses by 30% (up to $8bn) in New York alone.

John Nelson, chairman of Lloyd’s, told the Guardian newspaper in London: “The destruction Sandy brought to the eastern US seaboard was responsible for claims of up to $300m in lost fine art, a consequence of the many expensive US beachfront homes damaged.”

Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated much of the Philippines and other parts of south-east Asia in November 2013, was one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record.

Trevor Maynard, head of exposure management and reinsurance at Lloyd’s, said: “Climate change is very much here to stay. Hurricanes are getting stronger worldwide, and especially over the north Atlantic. . .  At the moment we are heading for a rise of four degrees by the end of the century.”

Mission reality

IT’S NOT ONLY the insurers who believe that climate change is a real and growing risk. Increasingly, the prospect is preoccupying military planners.

Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “This is a mission reality, not a political debate. The scientific forecast is for more Arctic ice melt, more sea-level rise, more intense storms, more flooding from storm surge, and more drought.”

A former US Navy officer, retired Vice-Admiral Lee Gunn, is reported by NBC News as saying that the 2011 Arab Spring uprising could in part be traced to a winter drought in China, plus record heat waves and flooding in several other countries, including Russia.

Gunn concluded: “There was a drought and a wheat shortage that resulted in an increase in wheat prices and, therefore, an increase in bread prices − a staple in North Africa.”

NBC says US security experts are also concerned by possible threats to the rice harvest in south-east Asia, and specifically in Vietnam. They say the melting of the Himalayan glaciers would add to sea-level rise, ruining rice production and ravaging Bangladesh. If it did, they believe, that could create a flow of refugees into India, and also threaten fresh water resources in India and Pakistan.

Dennis McGinn, the US Navy assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment, told NBC that there were also worries in military circles about unstable governments and fragile societies.

“The last thing in the world these nations need are the severe and more frequent effects of bad weather, including crop failures,” McGinn said. “Therein is a recipe for the kind of instability that will inevitably involve the United States in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief or, indeed, in a regional conflict.”

A further report, by 16 retired generals and admirals, says climate change is a direct threat to national security and the US economy. The authors, members of the Military Advisory Board of the not-for-profit CNA Corporation, blame rising temperatures for, in part, worsening international tension. 

Their study says that the impacts of climate change are already intensifying instability in vulnerable regions, especially the resource-rich and rapidly changing Arctic. It says the projected impacts within the US will threaten its homeland security and major sectors of its economy. − Climate News Network

Climate hotspots imperil parts of Africa

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The countries around Lake Victoria should expect more flooding, more severe dry seasons and reduced plant growth, the study says Image: Damiano Luchetti via Wikimedia Commons

The countries around Lake Victoria can expect more flooding, more severe dry seasons and reduced plant growth, the study says
Image: Damiano Luchetti via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Three distinct parts of Africa which are likely to face the most severe impacts of climate change have been identified by researchers in Germany.

LONDON, 6 May -  We know that the effects of climate change are going to be felt unequally around the world. How useful it would be to know where the greatest risks will occur.

Now, for what they say is the first time, scientists in Germany have identified three African regions which they think should prepare for multiple problems in about 20 years’ time. They are in north-east Africa, central Africa and the south-east of the continent.

The scientists, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), report their findings in a study published online in the journal Global Change Biology. The lead author, Christoph Müller, says: “We tried to identify the places where climate change really hurts most.”

The three regions expected to be among those most at risk in a couple of decades are parts of Sudan and Ethiopia; the countries surrounding Lake Victoria in central Africa; and the continent’s south-eastern corner, especially parts of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

They are expected to see more severe dry seasons and reduced plant growth, with flooding near Lake Victoria. The three are the sub-Saharan Africa regions where by 2100 there will be a high likelihood of possibly severe climatic impacts affecting countries with relatively high populations and high poverty rates.

Good news too

The authors say that overlapping impacts of climate change – drought, for example, floods, declining crop yields or ecosystem damage – create “hotspots of risk”.

They believe their approach builds a more comprehensive picture of risk. Till now, they say, most studies have addressed only one aspect of climate change impacts at a time, even though multiple stresses amplify vulnerability. As well as identifying hotspots, they say their composite picture explicitly addresses the issue of uncertainty.

They acknowledge there will be uncertainties in assessing the impacts. But they think these can in fact inform development strategies, allowing an assessment of the impacts’ likelihood and potential severity, and a choice of ways to adapt.

And they say there is a clear upside to their work. “The good news is that large countries such as Nigeria and the tropical forests of the Congo region are likely to be much less affected,” Müller said.

“It’s all about risks,” says Hermann Lotze-Campen, co-chair of PIK’s research domain Climate Impacts and Vulnerability. “We have to live with uncertainties: we don’t have perfect data about future impacts of climate change, but computer simulations can help to understand likelihoods and possible impacts.”

Ways to adapt

Likely impacts, such as more intensive spells of drought in the southern Sahel, clearly demand the development of coping strategies for farmers and pastoralists, the study says, even if it remains uncertain how intense this change will be.

It recommends possible ways of adapting to risks. These include improved access to international agricultural markets, for instance, allowing herders to sell cattle before droughts, and insurance systems to balance increased variability in crop yields from one year to another, or water storage systems such as underground cisterns.

“This study provides the people on the ground with information they can hopefully use to then decide what to do,” says Lotze-Campen.

“A continental scenario analysis like this can never be a blueprint for adaptation, as it lacks local expertise. Yet it can help to decide where best to put limited resources in countries most affected by climate change.” – Climate News Network