More people, less food – climate change threatens food production

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The world population is likely to grow from the 6.9 billion recorded in 2010 to somewhere between 8 and 10.5 billion by 2050.

The path of future population growth is uncertain and can be affected by critical development initiatives related to gender equity and access to health services, including reproductive healthcare. Whether future population growth follows the low, medium, or high variant will have important implications for society’s ability to address the climate crisis.

The pressing question is why a four degree Celsius warmer world must be avoided. New scientific analyses have examined the likely impacts of present day two degree Celsius and four degree Celsius warming on agricultural production, water resources, and coastal vulnerability for affected populations.

It finds many significant climate and development impacts are already being felt in some regions, and in some cases multiple threats of increasingly extreme heat waves, sea level rise, more severe storms, droughts and floods are expected to have further severe negative implications for the poorest.

Research from the United Kingdom’s MET Office suggests the next two years could be the hottest on record globally. The research shows that a major El Nino event is in play in the Pacific Ocean, which is expected to heat the world overall. Climate-related extreme events could push households below the poverty trap threshold.

High temperature extremes are likely to affect yields of rice, wheat, maize, omahangu and other important crops, thus adversely affecting food security. Climate change and agricultural production are interrelated processes, which take place on a global scale.

Climate change affects agriculture in a number of ways, including through changes in average temperatures, rainfall, and climate extremes (e.g. heat waves), changes in pests and diseases, changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide and ground level ozone concentrations, changes in the nutritional quality of some foods, and changes in sea level.

Many of the countries likely to experience net loss are those with populations directly dependent on agriculture and forests for livelihoods, many of whom are already food insecure due to poverty, environmental degradation, land scarcity, and other factors.

Rapid population growth will amplify these challenges: under the medium variant projection of population growth, agricultural production loss and an increase in the prices of crops due to climate change will put an additional 90 to 125 million people in the developing world at risk of hunger by 2080.

Despite technological advances, such as improved [seed] varieties, genetically modified organisms, and irrigation systems, weather is still a key factor in agricultural productivity, as well as soil properties and natural communities.

The effect of climate on agriculture is related to variability in local climates rather than in global climate patterns.
The Earth’s average surface temperature has increased by 1.5 °F (0.83 °C) since 1880. Climate projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that due to dry and hot climate blowing over sub-Sahara Africa, some countries – including Namibia – could see agricultural yields decrease by 50% by 2050.

This would lead to over 50% of the population of these countries going hungry. An increasingly dry and hot climate will make sub-Saharan Africa less suitable for agriculture, reducing the length of growing seasons, lowering yields, and shrinking revenue.

Also, researchers studying the Indian Ocean have concluded that human-caused warming will make rainfall in the Horn of Africa even more erratic and severe drought more frequent. The volatile, warmer, and more extreme weather will lead to more crop failures, and, on current modes of production, to less agricultural output in all regions, according to the IPCC climate projections.

I would like to suggest that innovative agricultural practices and technologies can play a role in climate mitigation and adaptation. Let’s try to create the necessary agricultural technologies and harness them to enable developing countries to adapt their agricultural systems.

Changing climate will also require innovations in policy and institutions. In this context, institutions and policies are important at multiple scales. We must also think about the investments that improve infrastructure to enhance food and water security, together with investments in education, health, and gender equity can help build the resilience and adaptive capacity of vulnerable populations.

Pope Francis on his visit to the White House in the United States of America on September 23, said:
“Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.
When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.”

* Dr Moses Amweelo is a former Minister of Works and Transport and Swapo MP.

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