October 13, 2011 3:05 pm

Climate change: Countries plan for unpredictable weather

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As researchers gain insights into the potential effects of climate change on agriculture, they are able to be more specific about the risk to food production in certain regions.

In a recent report from HSBC, “Scoring Climate Change Risk”, some of that threat is quantified, with scientists estimating the impact of temperatures on grain productivity.

Taking a view up to 2050, they suggest falls in maize, rice and wheat yields could be 12-13 per cent, increasing pressure on food prices.

Understanding the scale of the problem is a first step, even if precise outcomes are uncertain.

The next step is planning which projects will have the best shot at mitigating some of the effects of climate change.

But this planning can be hard, especially for developing countries, which are also likely to be hardest hit. Long-term political commitment and a lot of technical expertise is required, as well as the confidence that there will be funding to help with implementation.

Claudia Ringler, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, points out that planning also requires a high level of co-ordination between ministries.

“Many developing countries now have climate change co-ordinating committees, climate change focal points and climate change strategies and action plans. But the issue is how to ensure focus, at a national level, on improving resilience”.

McKinsey, the consultancy, has worked with a number of countries on the economics of adapting agriculture to climate change.

Projects start by evaluating the likelihood of climate-related risks, and the value and vulnerability of a country’s assets. Interventions to reduce impact are assessed for cost, feasibility and social effects.

In Mali, for instance, the consultancy found that all the losses that could arise from the disruption of agriculture could be averted.

According to Jens Riese, a McKinsey director, this is unusual: 40-70 per cent loss mitigation is more typical.

Interventions include digging wells for animals, shifting where crops are grown, and varying their type.

In the case of the least developed countries, a process has been established, National Adaptation Programmes of Action, which enables governments to submit urgent priority activities to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

So far, more than 40 countries have submitted such programmes.

The type of action that experts advocate is not necessarily climate change-specific, but tends to be good agricultural practice: how to improve yields and reduce risks to farmers.

Some of these initiatives may be ones that farmers have already developed elsewhere to cope with environmental crises.

A study sponsored by the Asian Development Bank highlights a number of these coping strategies.

In countries at risk of flooding, for instance, farmers have developed community rice and fish farms, or have experimented with growing crops on floating gardens, as well as changing the timing of transplanting varieties of rice.

In arid regions, water is preserved via rainwater harvesting, dams, reservoirs and tanks (underground, for instance, in the case of the Thar desert in India). More efficient drip-feed irrigation systems are also used.

New ideas are also emerging. These range from different ways of managing the land – reducing the frequency of tilling, for example – to new crop varieties that are resistant to diseases and insurance products for farmers that spread risk more widely.

A number of companies are paying close attention to innovation in smallholder agriculture.

“In the past three to five years, the more progressive consumer goods companies are starting to look seriously at how to adopt policies to help smallholder farmers integrate into the global supply chain ... There is a business logic, given the risks of resource scarcity.

“These ‘pre-commercial’ investments will pay back by providing companies with a more diverse and more robust supply chain,” says Peter Lacy, managing director of sustainability services, Europe Africa and Latin America at Accenture, the consultancy.

Unilever is a case in point. Its goal is to buy all its key agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources in big agriculture as well as smallholders.

This is now a business issue for the consumer goods group, says Gavin Neath, its senior vice-president for sustainability.

In east Africa, in the Rift Valley, where Unilever has a tea estate, “we are seeing changing rainfall patterns, with less predictability,” he says. “The big issue is water harvesting and we have planted 1m trees there to help the soil retain water.”

For Mr Neath, the business case is clear: “We believe the impact of climate change will have to be mitigated by a more sustainable approach to agriculture.”

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