Commentary Piece in China Daily Asia on CLCF Food Security report

By Prof Piers Forster and Dr Lawrence Jackson, University of Leeds and Jon Price, Director of the Centre for Low Carbon Futures.

Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

Perhaps for once, we do have a “once in a lifetime opportunity”. The threat posed to Asia’s wheat and maize harvests by climate change related drought has typically been presented in terms of its impacts in the 2050s and beyond. This has always been the Achilles heel for climate change – making it nearly impossible to stimulate action by governments or industry. Now new research “Near future drought and related food security projections for Asia”, models impacts on a 20 year timeframe and shows a considerable threat to food production by the 2020s. The message is clear for today’s policymakers: It could happen on your watch.

Jon Price, Director of the Centre for Low Carbon Futures (CLCF), a University based research organisation in the UK recently commissioned the report on food security impacts in the more immediate 20 year time frame to provide an evidence base in order that action can be taken now to avert a future food crisis. This unique research was led by Professor Piers Forster from the University of Leeds who is also a lead IPCC author.

The increased risk of drought from climate change has been widely reported but what is not so well known is that its impact on food security will be felt much sooner than realised. Using the latest state-of-the-science projections from 12 leading climate modelling centres around the world the research team looked at soil moisture changes in the 2020s comparing to the recent past (1990-2005). They found that the threat to food production in Asia from climate change related drought could be felt in the next 10-15 years.  The results are cause for concern, particularly the trends in the severity of drought - periods of four consecutive months or longer where projected soil moisture levels were less than the 1990-2005 monthly average. By the 2020s an increased risk of severe drought will be widespread across Asia. Of the major wheat and maize producing nations, China, Pakistan, and Turkey have the greatest increase in exposure to drought along with Iran. In China the projected increased risk of severe drought was found in many provinces, most notably for Chongqing and neighbouring areas. Key croplands, such as the Huang He River Valley for wheat, and the Jilin and Liaoning provinces for maize, were also affected by increased drought risk. Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan are notable for the greatest projected increase in drought exposure.

These impending changes should be of global concern since China, the most populous country in the world, is the largest producer of cereal crops. With the world’s population projected to exceed 8 billion people by 2025 and changes in diet and lifestyle associated with growth of the global middle class, the demand for food in Asia will grow strongly in the 21st century. Yet our ability feed everyone is limited by the availability of agricultural land and changes necessary to make it more sustainable. Climate change mitigation is insufficient on its own to safeguard food production. Instead, it will be the ability of this region to adapt to climate change and the associated threat to agricultural production which will help reduce future crop losses in the drought years.

The ability of countries to adapt to changes in climate and drought was assessed using data on soil moisture and harvests during 1990-2005 and socio-economic changes projected to the 2020s. Of the major producers of wheat and maize, Indonesia, China and Pakistan were found to be relatively well placed to adapt to climate change. There can be no room for complacency, however. Possessing the capability to adapt is ineffective if farmers are unable or willing to use flexible adaptation strategies such as changing planting dates and using more heat tolerant crop varieties.

The ability of India to adapt really caught the attention of researchers. Whilst India was not projected to experience one of the largest increases in drought risk, it was found to have one of the weakest rankings for adaptive capacity. Northern India was found to have one of the lowest adaptive capacities in Asia for wheat production and central and northern India one of the lowest for maize production. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency if we want to avoid global shortages of key crops since India is the world's second largest producer of wheat and the seventh largest producer of maize. Furthermore, the adaptive capacities of other major producers including the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, were also found to be insufficient.

 The message for policymakers is clear; the threat to food production in Asia from drought risk brought on by climate change could be felt in the next 10-15 years. Given the slow rate of progress achieved over the 20 years up to the recent United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20), we cannot wait for actions to address the changes in the physical climate if we want to feed the growing Asian population and limit impact on global food security. Immediate actions are needed to achieve more sustainable use of water supplies and enhance adaptive capacity.

Many of the social and economic changes necessary to be able to adapt to climate change are locally specific.. For example, the team found more intensive fertiliser use was associated with weaker adaptive capacity in cold and temperate climates with the opposite effect in some tropical and arid regions. Actions that work for wheat may not work for maize. Actions that work in rich countries may not work in poor ones.

Countries with middle income economies are especially vulnerable to climate change effects like drought. They appear to find themselves without the better adaptive capacity often linked to traditional agricultural methods in low income countries. At the same time, they are without the financial means to invest in better agricultural technologies available to high income countries, such as innovations in seed quality and fertiliser use. Reducing wealth inequality is essential in order to foster freer, fairer trade and to encourage the widespread uptake of technological developments which will improve harvest resilience.

Drought from climate change poses an imminent threat to food security across Asia and beyond. It demands informed and timely actions from today’s policymakers at all levels both local and international. It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

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