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Rabu, 23 Juni 2010

Global Climate Change: Can Agriculture Cope?

No one understands better than farmers do how the weather, especially when it takes a turn for the worse, can affect people and their land. That’s why farmers around the world have always talked and worried about the weather obsessively. But now, emerging weather patterns have a lot of other people worried, too, and their concerns are well founded.
According to a report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in February 2006, the average temperature of the earth’s surface, having already risen by 0.74 degrees Centrigrade in the last 100 years, is expected to increase by an average of about 3 degrees over the next century, assuming greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current rates. Even the minimum predicted temperature increase, 1.4 degrees, will represent a profound change, unprecedented in the last 10,000 years. The scientific evidence behind these projections, says Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is unequivocal, leaving “no doubt as to the dangers mankind is facing.”
Heavy Weather
One of those perils consists of rising sea levels, caused by the expansion of ocean volumes and by the melting of glaciers and ice caps. Coastal areas around the world, including major urban areas, could be inundated, as depicted in Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
An even greater sea of troubles, though, is the one encroaching specifically on agriculture. Worldwide, farming is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for a sizable share of the estimated 20 percent of total emissions that result from land use. But in developing countries, the more immediate problem, insist IPCC members Martin Parry and Cynthia Rosenzweig, is agriculture’s vulnerability to climate change and the grave consequences this implies for the world’s poor and hungry.
Part of the danger they face comes from what are called “extreme weather events.” Using computer-based simulation models, scientists predict these will occur with greater frequency, especially in the tropics. In addition, fundamental changes in rainfall patterns, together with rising temperatures, will shorten growing seasons, reducing crop productivity. These trends are already in evidence.
Drought, severe storms and flooding are hardly news for farmers in the developing world. They have been contending with such catastrophes since the beginnings of agriculture 10,000 years ago. But never before have so many rural people been so vulnerable.
About 63 percent of the developing world’s total population lives in rural areas, according to World Bank estimates, and they include nearly 75 percent of the approximately 1.2 billion people who are trapped in extreme poverty.
Poverty, because it limits options, is a major reason for the vulnerability of developing country farmers to global climate change. Another is the steady degradation during recent decades of the soil, water, forests and other plant resources on which their livelihoods depend. This has resulted in large part from the intensification and expansion of agriculture in response to growing demand for food, feed and fiber from earth’s rapidly growing human population.
Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region and the one most dependent on agriculture, brings the problem into sharp focus. An estimated 500 million hectares of its agricultural land are already degraded, say soil scientists. Moreover, 95 percent of the region’s cropland is rainfed, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and rainfall patterns are already quite erratic.
With more “heavy weather” on the horizon, how will farmers in Africa and elsewhere keep pace with the demand for food, which is expected to at least double in the developing world over the next 40 years? And what hope do they have of creating better livelihoods for themselves and their children?
Focused on Climate Change
The consequences of global climate change, like the immediate prospect of being hanged, to paraphrase literary figure Samuel Johnson, are wonderfully concentrating the minds of agricultural scientists, development professionals and policy makers around the world. Among them are the approximately 1,000 scientists and 7,000 other staff of the 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, or CGIAR.
The CGIAR Centers and their numerous partners in government and civil society organizations have been helping farmers cope with the effects of variable and severe weather for nearly three decades. Specifically, they seek ways to protect water and other natural resources under extreme weather conditions and other pressures, to develop crop varieties that are adapted to harsh climates, and to identify policy and institutional innovations that better enable countries and communities to cope with these conditions. Through this work, CGIAR researchers have generated a wealth of improved crop germplasm, knowledge, technologies, methods and policy analysis, which can lessen the vulnerability of marginalized rural people and places through more sustainable management of crops, livestock, soils, water, forests, fisheries and biodiversity.
This research is highly relevant to the economic and environmental constraints that developing country farmers face today. And it will become even more necessary as global climate change magnifies those constraints.
Let’s Be Civilized
Because so many of the rural poor in developing countries depend on agriculture, it is one of the central arenas in which the threat posed by climate change must be confronted. The efforts of CGIAR scientists provide part of the basis for action, but they must be more sharply focused and better coordinated. Toward this end, the CGIAR announced its intention, at its 2006 annual general meeting to intensify and streamline this research in collaboration with a wide array of research and development partners.
Much depends on the success of this initiative. Agriculture, after all, still forms the basis of “civilization,” a concept that has less to do with material and cultural progress, according to world-renowned historian Felipe Fern├índez-Armesto, than with how people shape and adapt to diverse environments in meeting their food and other needs.
Global climate change poses an unprecedented challenge to humanity’s skill at maintaining viable livelihoods under highly diverse and variable climatic and environmental conditions. We might even think of it as the ultimate test of just how civilized we can be.

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