climate change and agriculture

The world’s governments and scientists have been meeting in Bali, Indonesia to talk about climate change, and what plans should be on the table for the near future as well as beyond the end of this phase of the Kyoto protocol in 2012. In light of all that I’ve been doing some thinking on climate change issues and ethics.

Climate change is going to happen. The mean average temperature for the planet is going to go up.  I don’t really feel like this needs to be debated anymore. There are some uncertainties in how exactly it will play out, but people really need to think of how they’re going to cope.  Even if we stop all emissions tomorrow, we’re going to feel the effects of what’s been done until today for a really long time. Since we’re not going to stop emitting everything tomorrow, extend that horizon out as far as possible.  Enjoy.

I’m a Northeasten United States kinda gal, and as far as my living is concerned, things are likely to stay pretty nice around here.  Projections show the US staying fairly tolerable, and more of Canada becoming tolerable. I’m not worried about where people live.  We are adaptable and build all kinds of things to make ourselves fit to live in all kinds of environments that vary from the “ideal.”

Folks living in the global south are likely to have a much harder time, and while some changes will be unexpected, models give some good insight as to where we might stand. I should more appropriately say where they might stand. I am not going to be having much of a hard time, except that I may need to move further inland.  There are people in other places with infinitely different economic dependencies who are going to suffer, and the question becomes how much do I think I, or my country, should have to help? I do not doubt that if there are global food shortages, most countries are going to look out for number one first, then spread their views elsewhere, and while we like to think that we are happy humanitarian people, we’re more likely to help those who have something we need then those who have nothing.

This sounds cruel, but it must be remembered that when these problems hit, they will be everywhere. Shortages and migrations will not only be going on within the US, but also in Africa, in Europe, in Russia, in Australia, and very dramatically from island and coastal nations. The challenge will be not only housing millions of refugees from flooded homelands, but also feeding them and millions more whose agricultural and water resources will be changing. We have little concept of lack of space in the US.  It is easy to move, the only challenges being getting stuff from point A to point B and securing a new job and figuring out where the nearest supermarket is as well as other crucial facilities. We will be able to stay within our borders. For much smaller nations, that migration is going to cross country lines.

Agriculturally, traditional crops are going to change as water and climate trends change. To bring this over to my love of beer, hops are traditionally grown in the US Northwest, and in Germany.  It may be that the ideal growing locales will change to western Canada, and possibly up into Scandanavia.  This is assuming those folks will want to grow the plant.  Meanwhile, what’s a traditional hop farmer to do?  The options become move, or change.

Again, these are places that are going to have options.  Not everyone is going to be that lucky.

Africa — where four out of five people make their living directly from the land — could see agricultural downturns of 30 percent, forcing farmers to abandon traditional crops in favor of more heat-resistant and flood-tolerant ones such as rice. Worse, some African countries, including Senegal and war-torn Sudan, are on track to suffer what amounts to complete agricultural collapse, with productivity declines of more than 50 percent. –Rick Weiss, Washington Post 19 Nov 2007, pA06

At the Global Environment Facility event from one of the side events on 4 Dec at the UNFCCC meeting in Bali it was noted that the impacts of climate change on agriculture in Africa will make substistence no longer possible for several nations.

There is a lot of guess work to these estimates, and while they do not account for some of the “wins” from the changes that will happen, they also don’t account for changes that will come with plant pests and diseases.

This need to balance out food production techniques has spurred a race in crop development, producing genetically robust modified plants that may have more ability to adapt.  The race is on as no one knows when climate change will really start to have dramatic impacts, and everyone knows human population is growing.

Particularly interesting to me is the ways in which we might seek to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge, government planning, and farm practice. So much of how this works is based on market competition and survival of the fittest, but where is the line where it’s ok to break the secrecy competition encourages in order to ensure survival?  Part of the challenge will be in creating rural development plans in order to keep agriculture happening.  This is important in places like China and the US, where agricultural land is eaten up for development, in China by the growth of cities, and in the US by the spread of suburbia.  More interestingly is the need to forge connections directly with farmers in a sort of feedback loop in order to share information on agro-meteorological conditions, explore the application for different and new crop varieties, assess market conditions, and take on potentially experimental fields in order to possibly increase yield and thus convince (or not convince) a farmer or farming community to make changes (Agricultural and Food Security Break Out Group, 2007).

The key here is adaptation.  Things are going to change, we just need to figure out how to do it.  There isn’t going to be some magical technical fix, and our government systems are not smooth and efficient enough as things stand now… so we need to rethink how we can become, on a global and local level, more adaptable. This shouldn’t be so foreign a concept in the US.  Response post Hurricane Katrina exemplify how unadaptable we are in the US.  Low income areas, and low income countries are the most challenged by adaptability.  It’s interesting to look at approaches being used in Bali, and in the Asian Monsoon area to try and cope with adaptability (START annual report 2006-2007).  The goals of projects aim at better understanding human interactions with the environment, define sound scientific models for sustainable development, and then develop some predictive capability for estimating changes.  There is a lot of science-government linkages here to try and encourage a kind of readiness and awareness on the government level.

This means we might have a fighting chance of doing things like feeding ourselves if we don’t stick our heads in the sand. I can’t decide which is a greater challenge: building that adaptability in a country functioning below the poverty line and all the corruption and insecurity that entails, or building adaptability in a country like the US where we are very particular about all the “stuff” we “need.” Back in 1992 George Bush made the most honest statement ever at the Earth Summit in Rio, saying that the US way of life was not up for negotiation. While that’s a bold and proud statement to make, and a very honest one, I can’t help but feel a pang of worry and regret when considering that kind of mindset is what has brought down great empires.  That mindset is what is opposed to adaptability, and what may in the end leave us all very very hungry.

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