Feeding the masses in an era of climate change

Opinion

 
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There is virtually no land which produces economically useful products, such as crops, livestock or trees, which cannot be managed to maintain yields indefinitely. Even for the least resilient eco-systems, there are techniques of land management providing protection from degradation.” (Blaikie, 1987:55) [1]

You may be tempted to disagree with the statement. But hold on. Agricultural production is a function of land, labour and technology, among others. Agricultural intensification would thus require a manipulation of one or more of these factors. Population growth could mean more people to feed and more intensive use of the land to produce food and meet other needs, but it also provides more availability of labour to work on and off the land.

The world population is increasing, and fastest growing in Africa. However, agricultural yields and food production continue to decline across the continent despite improvements in agricultural techniques. Population growth and agricultural intensification are not the main factors determining unsustainable food production and land use patterns. The methods of land use and agricultural productivity, policy and institutional factors, environmental and climatic conditions, socio-economic, political and other factors are paramount to determining actions and decisions on sustainable land use and management. In some developing countries, conflict and insecurity, climatic shocks and economic turbulence have been identified as the main drivers of food insecurity (FSIN, 2019:2) [2] .

Climate change and food production

Climate change is considered one of the greatest threats to sustainable development, impacting human livelihoods, ecosystems and economies. Agriculture and fisheries are very sensitive to climate changes, particularly water stress. The 2018 IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C clearly indicates some of the effects that would be felt in a warmer world. These include sea-level rise, increased intensification of extreme weather events including heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and changes in rainfall patterns with more sporadic heavy showers, to name a few. The effects of these impacts include: reduced crop yields and low agricultural production, undernutrition, and the spread of disease vectors and infectious diseases, with negative consequences on the livelihoods and social-economic conditions of people.

The ACP Group of States, for example, which accounts for the majority of the world’s small island states, least developed countries and land-locked countries, are some of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rain-fed agricultural systems on which large proportions of the populations depend, tourism and other sectors that directly depend on land resources, as well as infrastructure and health, will be significantly affected as a result of climate change.

Against this backdrop, adaptation to climate change and the need to increase resilience could also determine changes in agricultural patterns and food production by altering farming practices and technology for the better. For example, in order to support member states to address climate change impacts, through initiatives such as the Intra-ACP Global Climate Change Alliance Plus programme, the ACP Group seeks to strengthen resilience and support adaptation and mitigation actions, as well as sustainable agricultural practices.

Meeting increasing food demands in a changing climate

Nevertheless, the demand which results from our production and consumption patterns is one of the root causes of over-exploitation and unstainable use of land and natural resources. The consumption patterns of more advanced countries demand the availability of a variety of agricultural products from different parts of the world. In order to guarantee market availability, such products have to be produced and made available throughout the year and in significant quantities for them to be marketable and profitable. This is not a result of increased agricultural intensification to meet food demands exerted by population growth per se, but the global trade of agricultural products are part of the consumer demand exerted on finite natural resources and agricultural lands.

The sensitivity of crop yields to climatic variations and weak or limited post-harvest technology in many developing countries make subsistence agricultural production risky, expensive and not very profitable. However, several technologies exist that, if employed, are supposed to limit land degradation and promote sustainable land use, for example climate-smart agriculture. Indigenous knowledge of farming practices could also be explored to enrich current knowledge and methods of food production.

It can thus be concluded that it is possible to sustainably intensify agriculture to meet increasing food demands by employing climate-smart technologies within a favourable political, economic, policy and institutional framework.

[1] Blaikie, P., & Brookfield, H. 1987. Land degradation and Society. Suffolk: Richards Clay Ltd.

[2] Food Security Information Network, 2019. 2019 Global Report on Food Crises. Joint Analysis for Better Decisions. FSIN.