Climate disasters are closing in. Why have we forgotten farmers?

by Elwyn Grainger-Jones and Martin Kropff
Monday, 13 November 2017 10:00 GMT

Crops are seen on the ground after being damaged by Hurricane Maria in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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Do you ever contemplate climate change over your morning cup of coffee?

Probably not. But perhaps it is time that you did.

The tropical storms that recently hit the U.S. and Caribbean in quick and brutal succession have brought the impacts of climate change closer to home for many of us in the developed world. Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico, wiping out nearly 80 percent of the value of the country’s crops. One of these major exports is coffee. A major industry, a lifeline for farmers, and the breakfast staple you may take for granted, swept away.

Storms like Maria, which seem to be fuelled by climate change, and are an indication of the kind of extreme weather events the world will have to contend with in the future. They won’t only devastate homes and cripple countries’ infrastructure, they will have a serious and long term effect on our global food supply.

Many parts of the developing world have been experiencing the brunt of these climate change impacts for decades. With fragile food systems at the mercy of the increasingly erratic weather – they stand to lose a lot more than those of us with the resilience to bounce back. They have fewer options to recover and need urgent help.

In East and Southern Africa for example, consecutive seasons of drought  have ravaged crops and livestock, causing food prices and hunger levels to soar. Climate-induced pest outbreaks like the fall armyworm in sub-Saharan Africa may cause up to $3 billion worth of damage to maize crops, and cost hundreds of millions more to address.

A predicted 150 million to two billion people are migrating to escape conflict, poverty, hunger, and extreme weather events.  To make matters worse, food production continues to emit greenhouse gases, contributing to the overall change in climate and perpetuating this vicious cycle.

World leaders must surely have seen this coming.

The Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 recognized agriculture as a sector where action is needed, to protect food and farming from the worst climate impacts. A vast majority of countries have formulated ambitious plans to tackle these issues on the ground. Yet two years on the price tag for inaction is climbing into the hundreds of millions.

Only by backing climate action in agriculture can our global food system have a fighting chance. This week’s climate change conference in Bonn - that several US governors will attend in the absence of the Trump administration – will be the ideal time to step this action up. The solutions are out there - farmers, governments, scientists and the private sector are putting them into practice around the world every day.

Climate-proof crops

In Zimbabwe, where farmers pin their hopes on reliable rainfall, droughts pose a constant threat to crops and livelihoods. Hunger looms large for the poorest farmers. In this setting, drought-tolerant maize varieties are a lifesaver. Farmers who planted drought-tolerant varieties have substantially increased their output and incomes; researchers estimate that this is equivalent to more than nine months of food at no additional cost. Scientists are also breeding varieties that can contend with hotter climates – these maize seeds are increasingly in demand by farmers.

Fighting pests

Changing climates create favourable conditions for new pests and diseases. Now affecting more than 30 African countries, the fall armyworm is wrecking staple crops and compromising the food and nutritional security of millions of people. Recently, a coalition has initiated an emergency response to this looming threat, building on decades of experience managing pests and diseases. The strategy centers around the needs of smallholder farmers, who often cannot afford costly chemical insecticides. Potential responses include low-cost and environmentally safer pesticides, simple and effective on-farm practices like intercropping maize with beans, biological control (which deploys other organisms or plants to attack the pest), and improving resistance of vulnerable crops. Better monitoring and surveillance will help countries mobilize responses well ahead of time.

Insurance when disaster strikes

Even the most drought-tolerant and pest-resistant crops and livestock are vulnerable to prolonged droughts, erratic rainfall and extreme weather events. New insurance products geared towards smallholder farmers can help them recover their losses, and even encourage farmers to invest in climate-resilient innovations. In the most flood-prone state of Bihar in India, a new insurance scheme based on satellite data is set to pay out to up 60 percent of farmers that purchased policies, offering some hope to rebuild livelihoods washed away during the monsoon season.

Sustaining food security while reducing emissions

It is imperative to reduce agriculture’s contribution to global emissions if we are to meet the global target of 1.5 degrees set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. But this has been one of the sticking points for UN climate negotiations on agriculture; some countries fear that mitigation actions could compromise food production. However, research undertaken by CGIAR and its partners has found that a middle ground is possible, where farmers adopt practices that improve productivity and resilience while also reducing emissions. In Vietnam and the Philippines, farmers are using water-saving approaches to growing rice, which happen to reduce harmful methane emissions by around 50%. It’s an easy win for farmers and also for the planet.

It is time that our global food and farming systems – so vital to our survival – get the attention they deserve. It shouldn’t take these disasters happening close to home (or the threat of an interruption in our coffee supply) for our leaders to take action. 

The hard-won gains in global food security are already sliding into reverse, with farmers at the front lines of future climate change. The UN climate talks offer the opportunity for global policy and financing to catch up to the needs already expressed by countries. Anything less would be a catastrophe for farmers and for our collective future.

Elwyn Grainger-Jones is the Executive Director of CGIAR System Organization and Martin Kropff is the Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)