Uncertain FutureA rice farmer in strolls in Bali, Indonesia. A new study looking at the effects of climate change on crop production suggests rice systems throughout Asia will likely suffer in future decades.
Sarah Gofort, Discovery News
Jan. 31, 2008 -- Some of the world's poorest regions could face severe food shortages in the coming decades thanks to climate change, say researchers who have consulted the most sophisticated climate models to predict where crop losses are likely.
According to those models, the world's average temperature could rise by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 20 years. The difference may seem small in abstract, but coupled with changes in rainfall, it could have dramatic effects on the growing seasons of important crops.
Most of the world's 1 billion poor depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, points out David Lobell, lead author of a new paper on the predictions and a senior research scholar at Stanford University's Program on Food Security and the Environment (FSE).
"Unfortunately," he said in a statement, "agriculture is also the human enterprise most vulnerable to changes in climate."
To figure out which regions might be hit the hardest, Lobell and his colleagues used 20 climate models, focusing on poor regions in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Their findings will be published in the Feb. 1 issue of the journal Science.
"We decided that a systematic look at the data might be helpful in identifying which crops and regions have the worst, or best, prospects," Lobell told Discovery News.
Though more rain -- and more crops -- are predicted for a few of those regions, the vast majority are drying up.
The researchers also compared the climate projections to past data on what people eat. Like a farmer's almanac, information on how temperature swings and rainfall patterns have affected growing seasons in the past gave them an idea of what to expect in the future.
The prospects are grim.
Their analysis revealed two "hunger hotspots" -- southern Africa and South Asia -- where regional staples such as maize and rice could drop by 10 percent or more.
Dealing with the problem could be cheap in some places, where farmers can plant earlier or later in the growing season. But the best solutions, said Lobell, require investment in technologies to pipe in more water and turn fallow land fertile.
Aid agencies, said Lobell, need advance warnings of potential hunger situations. To make this happen, the United States Agency for International Development has created a discipline-crossing program called FEWS NET (for Famine Early Warning System).
"Climate change is an opportunity to do the work we should have been doing all along, helping farmers to increase their agricultural productivity," said FEWS NET researcher Molly Brown, of the Biospheric Sciences Branch at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
In a paper accompanying Lobell's study in Science, Brown and co-author Chris Funk of the University of California, Santa Barbara, call for more attention to predictions like Lobell's.
"A changing climate will force the political and economic systems to change so that people can continue to live and work in semi-arid regions. We see it as an opportunity to improve the food security of the poorest and most vulnerable," Brown told Discovery News.
"The Lobell study highlights some very significant red flags in terms of global food production," said Funk, adding that his own work suggests an even "more pessimistic precipitation outlook" than Lobell's.
"On the other hand, I firmly believe that effective responses to these issues are possible," he said. "What will be needed, however, is real political commitment to change, both by the international community and by individual countries in the developing world."