AGRITRENDS: Climate change threatens food supply

This one is for Robert Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not”: Too much rains and floods during the summer season and scorching heat of the sun during the rainy season. What is happening to our weather these days? The answer my friend, according to scientists, is climate change.

“We are poised on the brink of a climate change unlike any witnessed during the past two millenniums,” said a statement read during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. “The greenhouse effect and the depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer have assumed dangerous proportions and present an inestimable challenge to mankind.”

“Ten thousand years have passed since the current pleasantly temperate period began, so another sudden shift is overdue. The notion that greenhouse gases could trigger such a rapid change keeps serious scientists up at night… And since scientists today have little understanding of past climate flips, it’s impossible to say when the next one will start,” wrote Gregg Easterbrook in “A Skeptical Guide to Doomsday,” a 2003 Wired article.

Climate change is, indeed, already here and everyone is affected. No one is spared from its wrath. “Climate change is … here and it can only get worse. We believe that climate change is going to be more intense. The Philippines will be most vulnerable if the people are least prepared,” said Amelie Obusan, climate and energy campaigner of Greenpeace Philippines.

The World Bank lists the Philippines as one of the top 12 countries “at highest risk to climate change.” Droughts, floods, storms, rising sea levels, and greater uncertainty in agriculture were the reasons cited why the country was among included in the top list.

The 2013 Global Climate Risk Index ranked the Philippines fourth among more than 190 countries around the world that have suffered the most extreme weather events such as flooding and storms over the past 20 years.

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) has already warned the public of extreme weather condition characterized by significant increase in hot days and warm nights, extreme rainfall activity, and significant increase in annual mean temperature.

While the frequency remains the same at about 20 typhoons a year, there are now about five to six of these that are stronger with wind speeds of about 220 kilometers per hour compared to about two or three previously. And they bring a lot of rains.

Food diversity

Food shortage

More importantly, climate change will greatly affect food production. It has been estimated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) that up to 25 per cent of world food production could be lost by 2050 as a result of climate change, water scarcity and land degradation.
“Despite the technological advances in the second half of the 20th century, agriculture remains to be one of the most vulnerable sectors to climate change,” notes Apple Jean C. Martin in a policy advocacy.

“Climate change is more disastrous to the agricultural industry of the Philippines and its neighboring countries than in other parts of the world,” warned Dr. David Street of the US Argonne National Laboratory.

The Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) reported that climate change could reduce rice yields. Although its study showed that rice could benefit from higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, an increase in temperature would “nullify any yield increase.”

According to the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development, about 5-7 percent decline in yield of major crops in the Philippines is attributed to climate change. “The yield reduction is caused by heat stress, decrease in sink formation (number of spikelet per unit ground area), shortening of growing period, and increased maintenance for respiration,” said the line agency of the Department of Science and Technology.

Drying world

Water resources are especially vulnerable to climate change. “In a warmer world, we will need more water – to drink and to irrigate crops,” said the London-based Panos Institute. “Water for agriculture is critical for food security,” points out Mark W. Rosegrant, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

“The link between water and food is strong,” says Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, also based in Washington, D.C. “We drink, in one form or another, nearly 4 liters of water per day. But the food we consume each day requires at least 2,000 liters to produce, 500 times as much.”

This explains why 70 percent of all water use is for irrigation. An estimated 40 percent of agricultural products and 60 percent of the world’s grain are grown on irrigated land. “Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water worldwide,” IRRI said. For instance, to raise a ton of rice, you need a thousand gallons of water.

But there could be less water to go round, as underground water reserves in coastal areas are flooded by sea water, as sea levels rise and as evaporation losses from reservoirs and rivers and flooded fields grow.

Dwindling fish catch

Not too many know that emissions from burning oil, coal and gas are both heating up the oceans and making them more acidic. That is combining to reduce the amount of seafood that can be caught, according to Ocean-Based Food Security Threatened in a High CO2 World.

Seafood is a primary source of protein for more than a billion of the poorest people in the world, said Matthew Huelsenbeck, author of the report and marine scientist at Oceana, an environmental non-government organization.

“Seafood is the only source of protein in large parts of the world,” Huelsenbeck said. “And for many local fishers, if they don’t catch fish, they go hungry.”

Filipinos are one of the world’s biggest fish consumers as more than half of their protein requirement come from fish. Each year, a Filipino consumes almost 30 kilograms of seafood.

Rising sea levels are seen by many scientists as the most serious likely consequence of global warming. The IPCC predicted in 2007 that sea levels will rise by up to 59 centimeters (23 inches) before 2100 due simply to the expansion of warmer ocean waters. The Philippines ranks fourth in the Global Climate Risk Index. Fifteen of the 16 regions of the country are vulnerable to sea level rise.

“Many fish stocks will suffer because their spawning and nursery grounds in coastal mangroves and lagoons will be engulfed by rising sea levels,” the Panos Institute reported. The IPCC said that climate change may become a more important threat to ocean fisheries than overfishing.

Food unrest

“The world price of food, which has already doubled over the last decade, is slated to climb higher, ushering in a new wave of food unrest,” wrote Brown, author of Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. “As food prices climb, the worldwide competition for control of land and water resources is intensifying.”

Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices, published by Oxfam, found that extreme weather in less than 20 years could push up prices 120% to 140% above the average food price in 2030, that will already be double today’s prices.

Already, millions of households now routinely experience days when they will not eat each and every week. A survey conducted by Save the Children shows that 24% of families in India now have foodless days. For Peru, it is 14% while it’s 27% in Nigeria.

The world’s poorest spend up to 75% of their income on food. “The huge potential impact of extreme weather events on future food prices is missing from today’s climate-change debate,” noted Tim Gore, Oxfam’s Climate Change Policy Adviser. “The world needs to wake up to the drastic consequences facing our food system of climate inaction.”

Meanwhile, the climate gone crazy continues. “Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records,” deplored Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization. —