Climate may widen gulf between rich and poor

Posted: 18 July 2001

Climate change may hit food production in the some of the world's poorest countries hardest while increasing it in many developed countries, according to a report released in July 2001 which combines the latest climate-change models with detailed data on global land use.

The report by researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Global Agro-ecological Assessment for Agriculture in the 21st Century, reinforces what many have long suspected, and could aid the plight of developing nations if its findings are taken into account at future climate-change summits, its authors argue.

Key findings of the report include:

  • More than three-quarters of the global land surface is unsuitable for crop cultivation, suffering severe constraints of being too cold (13%), too dry (27%), or too steep (12%), or having poor soils (40%).
  • Over 80 per cent of potentially cultivable land reserves are located in just two regions, South America and sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast, most of the cultivable land in Asia is already in use, and the population increase expected by 2050 will reduce per capita availability of cultivable land to below the critical level of 0.1 ha per person.
  • Intensification of agriculture will be the most likely means to meet food needs for a world population of some 9 billion people in 2050. The study asserts that enough food can be produced on currently cultivated land if sustainable management and adequate inputs are applied. However, this will require substantial improvements of socioeconomic conditions in many developing countries to enable access to inputs and technology.
  • The projected climate change will result in mixed impacts on crop production. Developed countries gain production potential, while many developing countries lose. In some 40 poor developing countries around the equator with a combined current population of 2 billion, including 450 million undernourished people, production losses due to climate change may drastically increase the number of undernourished, severely hindering progress against poverty and food insecurity.Climate change could mean more food for some (dark/light green) and less for others (yellow/orange).Brazil, India and many sub-Saharan African countries could lose out to climate change; winners will include Russia, China, Canada and Argentina. "The world will gain overall but there are profound concerns for these losing countries," says Mahendra Shah, one of the report's authors, who presented the findings in July 2001 at Challenges of a Changing Earth, a climate conference in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

    Equatorial zones will get hotter, the researchers calculate, making current crops harder to grow. Temperate areas - parts of North America, Russia and China - will get hotter but also wetter, allowing agriculture to spread further north. This trend was predicted as far back as 1994, but the new report is the most comprehensive analysis of it yet. "This is the most thorough biophysical measurement of global agriculture and forestry to date," says Ferenc Toth of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

    The new maps should help decision-makers in the threatened countries to develop alternative crop types or to plan food-importing strategies, says Shah. It will also equip them to better argue their case to developed countries.

    Toth agrees: the information included in assessments such as the IIASA report can "direct the next round of climate-impact assessments to focus on those areas where high potential risk has been identified," he says. However, if current social, economic and political trends that threaten food security in many poor nations continue, Toth warns that "climate change will not be their largest problem".

    Link: IIASA website, or download the whole report.