Climate change and agriculture
There can be much said and done on the effects of climate change on the weather we are experiencing each day. Anecdotally speaking, the weather seems to get more extreme, with rainy seasons being rainier and dry seasons being drier. If you look at the frequency of wildfires, tornadoes and floods occurring, one could link one and one together.
Farming and weather go hand in hand. A year of not enough or too much rainfall, a hot spell or cold snap at the wrong time, or extremes, like flooding and storms, can have a significant effect on local crop yields and livestock production. This past year was very hot and dry, leaving us with a minimal hay crop. These are the risks and uncertainties that are part of farming. However, with more extreme weather being more the rule than an exception, this poses specific problems for farms and therefore also the world’s food production.
Producing more efficiently
It is a controversial topic, as some would point to agriculture being one of the main culprits of climate change. With the focus of producing more efficiently for the world’s food demands, in particular meats, there is pressure on the sector to produce as much as possible within the shortest time frame. That drive to improve efficiency and production has been a curse and a blessing at the same time. The world population is rapidly increasing, and according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN/DESA), it could grow to 9.7 billion people by 2050, compared to today’s 7.5 billion.
To keep up with the many mouths to feed and the market’s desire for more high quality produce, technology has been vital to make production grow exponentially. Improving the crops to grow, with or without GMO, and best-in-practice growing techniques and equipment, and rich nutrients in the soil has stimulated efficiency on one side of the sector. The right breed, best-in-practice welfare and rearing techniques and high caliber feed has encouraged production on the other end. All this improvement, as much as it has and is doing good, is actually masking the effect climate change really has. Some argue that the pace in which improvements have been made far outpaces any detrimental effects climate has had so far.
There has been research done to show that there has been a detrimental effect on crop production, but because the effects are hard to isolate, it is tough to provide overwhelming conclusive evidence. All else being equal, rising carbon dioxide concentrations – the primary driver of climate change – could increase production of some crops, such as rice, soybean and wheat. However, the changing climate would affect the length and quality of the growing season and farmers could experience increasing damage to their crops, caused by an increasing intensity of droughts, flooding or fires. This could mean that at the same time, crop yields, mainly grain and corn, could decrease by 50 percent over the next 35 years because of altered climatic conditions.
Climate Smart Agriculture
The farming industry is at a crossroad. One the one hand there is evidence that the agriculture sector is a big contributor to CO2 and on the other hand, there is an ever growing population to feed. We need to produce more effectively and efficiently to keep up with the demand, but climate change seems to function as a break, putting crops more at risk in general and making best-practices sub-optimal. The methods that have brought much of the efficiency gains will not work as well in the (near) future. Some would suggest that the answer is technology and some would say its climate-smart agriculture (CSA). The smart money is obviously a combination of both.
When talking about technology, biotechnology springs up. Agricultural biotechnology provides a particularly promising set of tools for environmental sustainability. Biotech crops, such as those genetically modified to confer pest resistance and herbicide tolerance, are already helping to reduce emissions. However, just engineering better and more resistant crops might not be the answer. This is where CSA comes in.
Can it work?
CSA may be defined as an approach for transforming and reorienting agricultural development under the new realities of climate change. The World Bank says CSA can work. If done right can produce triple wins: higher agricultural productivity that can also boost farmer incomes; climate mitigation through reduced greenhouse gas emissions; and increased resilience and adaptation to climate change. Climate-smart agriculture includes approaches and techniques ranging from intercropping and integrated crop-livestock management to improved water, soil, and nutrient management.
Drought resistant Maize
One example of CSA can be found in the Drought-tolerant maize for Africa (DTMA) project. 160 drought-tolerant maize varieties were released between 2007 and 2013. These have been tested in both research facilities and on farmers’ fields and disseminated to farmers in 13 African countries through national agricultural research systems and private seed companies. Yields of the new varieties are superior to those of currently available commercial maize varieties under both stress and optimum growing conditions.
CSA can also be found in forecasting. Increasing climate variability makes it difficult for farmers to know what to grow and when. To help farmers plan their cropping calendars, national meteorological agencies can work with farmers to develop accurate and region-specific seasonal rainfall forecasts. The forecast information includes estimates of total seasonal rainfall, the onset and end of the rainy season, plus 10-day forecasts during the rainy season. This information is conveyed to farmers in formats that are tailored to meet their needs, helping farmers to make crucial management decisions despite increasing climate variability. For example, to invest more in farm water tanks to deal with a sudden shortfall.
Another example is the African thresher, known as ASI, can process 6 tonnes of rice per day. The ASI cleanly separates 99% of the grains, resulting in a better quality product. The ASI saves as much as one-third of the rice harvest from being lost. In effect, this boosts the yield of usable rice by 50%. Reduced losses, like reduced consumption, ease the demands on the production system. This cuts net greenhouse gases by requiring less energy and fertilizer per kilogram of rice delivered to the consumer.
Those are just 3 examples whereby keeping in mind the region and expected climate change effects are affecting decisions on what to grow and wherein a big way. It is a less ‘grow it here at any cost’ and more a tailored solution to suit the restrictions and needs of a local area while trying to be at least environmental neutral to your surroundings. It might not be a choice longer term though. As the climate is changing, we are all forced to make smart choices, in our personal lives and in agriculture.
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