Sunday, February 25, 2018

Climate change vs food security

How can we adapt?


Mark Fraser

‘BIG freeze shatters North America temperature records’. ‘UK storms: Man dies amid almost unparalleled natural crisis’. ‘Australian heatwaves more frequent, hotter and longer’. ‘Drought hits St Lucia’.

It is only the fourth month of the year but already extreme weather events have grabbed news headlines around the world.

These events appear to back up a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year which stated the number, frequency and intensity of hot days and heatwaves was increasing, along with an increase in the intensity and number of heavy rainfall events.

With longer and colder winters in some parts of the world, drought-like conditions in others, intense rainfall during the dry season and prolonged periods of dry conditions in the rainy season—never before have weather patterns been as unpredictable as they are today.

Climate change not only impacts weather patterns and our biodiversity, it also has a direct bearing on food security. And it’s engaging the full attention of researchers and scientists today.

In the latest major report released last month by the IPCC on the causes, effects and solutions of climate change, the impact on food security was isolated as an area of serious concern. In the report—the second of a series from the UN’s climate panel, the IPCC warned that all aspects of food security including availability of food, stability of food supply and utilisation of food, are potentially affected by climate change.

The Express got a first-hand look at some excerpts from the yet to be published book Impact of Climate Change on Food Security in Small Island Developing States. It notes that our climate is warming at a pace unparalleled in the history of the planet and that we no longer have the luxury of pretending that climate change is not happening. In the book’s introduction, the authors offer the sobering reminder that a failure to acknowledge the challenges posed by climate change and start planning is a recipe for disaster. In addition, it states that more than 97 per cent of climate scientists around the world agree that the global warming and changes which have occurred over the last 100 years are attributable to human activities.

Our carbon emissions here at home do not rival those of larger nations like China, the US or Australia, however as a small island nation, we are among those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change said lecturer in agricultural extension at the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Dr Wayne Ganpat. That being the case, it is unfortunate that right here in Trinidad and Tobago, many are not paying much attention to the impacts of climate change, he noted.

“Small island developing states are particularly at risk because of their small size, their geographic location. Because of their low-lying nature, sea level rise will inundate coastal areas,”said Ganpat.

In small island developing states where a lot of people choose to do farming close to the coastline, agriculture would be seriously affected. As the earth warms and sea levels rise, fertile land will become either flooded or useless as a result of salinity prompting many to move further inland, said Ganpat. But as a result of climate change and extreme weather patterns, farm lands further away from the coastline are also susceptible to soil erosion due to intense rainfall and crops will be devastated by more frequent, higher intensity storms, he added.

Extreme weather events; droughts, hurricanes, tropical storms can devastate the agricultural production of small islands according to the authors of Impact of Climate Change on Food Security in Small Island Developing States. They noted that in 2004, Hurricane Ivan impacted Grenada’s two cash crops, nutmeg and cocoa which led to losses equivalent to 10 per cent of their GDP, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy damaged over 45 per cent of farms that grew bananas in Jamaica. And the 1997/98 droughts in Fiji resulted in 50 per cent losses in sugar cane production. Total losses were calculated at US$50 million.

Coastal fisheries stand to be adversely impacted by climate change. Increased carbon emissions which are pumped into the atmosphere and are absorbed into the oceans results in ocean acidification (also described as the osteoporosis of the ocean) which slows reef growth and affects the marine species that depend on the reef for survival. In the Fijian islands, ocean acidification has been linked to an overabundance of marine algae which has devastated some shorelines making it uninhabitable for many marine species, observed Ganpat. Researchers using computer models to predict the effect that warming oceans could have on marine biodiversity have concluded that climate change could affect the distribution of ocean species as fish are migrating from tropical seas towards cooler seas. Migration due to cooler ocean temperatures and ocean acidification could lead to numerous extinction of species, researchers caution.

If carbon emissions continue unabated, what can be expected? The publication Impact of Climate Change on Food Security in Small Island Developing States notes that “climatologists expect surface temperatures to increase, precipitation patterns to change, sea ice levels to decrease, ocean temperatures to increase, ocean pH to decrease and sea levels to rise. Climatologists also expect increased frequency of extreme weather events”. The authors add that each nation must plan now to address food security and human well-being in their countries.

To ensure food security in a world with a changing climate, farmers must adapt, said Ganpat. That means implementing water management techniques like micro irrigation tubes and rain water harvesting and good agricultural practices to prevent soil loss. Shade houses or net houses are becoming increasingly popular as they protect crops from intense rainfall and enable farmers to farm year round.

Aquaculture is another important adaptation strategy, Ganpat added. Inland fisheries make it possible to farm fish in a controlled environment that is not subjected to the variability of the climate but it also has its critics who contend that they are breeding grounds for disease and pests and that farmed fish are not nearly as nutritional as their wild counterparts. However, educating and sensitising the public on how climate change will impact us here in T&T is the first crucial step,

Ganpat stressed.

“We say that we are too small and that big countries need to reduce their carbon emissions but we all should do what we can to contribute by renewable energy sources and by cutting down on the carbon products that we use, we have to go in that direction because we all indirectly contribute to global warming,”said Ganpat.

“We might say developed countries contribute more but small island developing states are most impacted in several areas and food security is the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The sooner we take action, the better.”

The publication Impact of Climate Change on Food Security in Small Island Developing States, is expected to be released later this year.