Drought and deluge: climate change and food production

Posted: 29 October 2009

Agricultural production in South and Southeast Asia will be severely affected by increasing temperatures and erratic water supplies brought on by global climate change, according to a report released last week by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Agriculture in the region is being threatened by unpredictable rainfall, which includes more intense periods of rain and drought.

The report compares predicted yields and production in 2050 with statistics from 2000 for rice, wheat, maize, soybeans and groundnuts.

Using two Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate models based on the A2 emissions scenario, the report shows broad regional variation in crop yields and production. It estimates a total negative outcome for agriculture and human well-being.

Floods, BangladeshTrygve Bolstad/Panos Pictures
Floods, BangladeshTrygve Bolstad/Panos Pictures
Flooding, Bangladesh. Bangladesh could become inhabitable as sea levels rise, contaminating inland water supplies.© Trygve Bolstad/Panos Pictures
South and Southeast Asia will be especially hard-hit, with yields of irrigated wheat declining 20 to 34 per cent. Wheat production will see an even greater decline of 44 to 49 per cent due to decreasing yields and marginalization of current crop areas.

While these developments will hurt national economies and local farmers, the effects will also be felt globally. IFPRI expects grain and meat prices to climb and nutrition to suffer.

Countries like India, which produces roughly one-sixth of the world's wheat, will be hardest hit.

Current Indian agriculture is largely an effect of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, which increased crop yields through the development of new seed varieties and application of fertilizers and pesticides. However, those varieties require stable climatic conditions. The 2009 monsoon season in India has been unusually dry, with periods of heavy rainfall that damage crops.

This same trend is occurring in Indonesia where monsoon deluges are destroying the rice harvest.

All this will have dire consequences for nutrition in the developing world, concludes the report:

  • Calorie availability in 2050 will not only be lower than in the no-climate-change scenario - it will actually decline relative to 2000 levels throughout the developing world.
  • By 2050, the decline in calorie availability will increase child malnutrition by 20 per cent relative to a world with no climate change. Climate change will eliminate much of the improvement in child malnourishment levels that would occur with no climate change.
To counteract decreasing yields, some organizations are encouraging a move to traditional agricultural methods and inputs, according to recent Inter Press Service reports. The seeds that the Green Revolution varieties supplanted are adapted to a broader range of conditions as a result of long-term natural selection. Programmes like the Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (MASIPAG) in the Philippines are running experimental plans with farmers to select the best seeds for specific locations. MASIPAG helps farmers breed traditional local seeds in small trial plots on their farms. Each organization in the network then selects the ten highest-yielding seeds to be distributed within its area.

IFPRI does not endorse a move to the traditional over the technical, but its report concludes that more investment is needed in productivity research, rural infrastructure (e.g. roads and efficient irrigation) and local farm-extension services to prevent disastrous declines in agricultural production.

Read the report: Climate change: Impact on agriculture and costs of adaptation