The United Nations has issued a call for a “profound transformation” of the world’s food and agriculture systems in the face of climate change that will have to be as thoroughgoing and rapid as the clean energy transition.
This radical appeal is the main takeaway from the global body’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2016 annual report, which for the first time makes climate change its key focus.
The report notes that global food demand in 2050 is projected to increase by at least 60 percent above 2006 levels, driven by population, income growth, and rapid urbanization. In the absence of climate change, economic growth is expected to deliver a decline in the number of people at risk of hunger by 2050. However global warming could change the picture, by boosting the number of those living in extreme poverty by between 35 million and 122 million by 2030.
Emissions mitigation in agriculture itself—the source of about a fifth of global greenhouse gases (GHGs)—can help reduce such numbers. Unlike in most other sectors, mitigation strategies also happen to be some of the best methods of adaptation to the effects of climate change. The FAO places great hope in what it terms ‘sustainable intensification’ of production: increasing agricultural yields while reducing the amount of land, fossil fuels, fertiliser and other inputs. Shrinking the amount of land used to produce food would reduce the impact of one of the biggest sources of agricultural GHGs: land-use change and deforestation.
Wide adoption of practices such as zero-tillage (farming without mechanically disturbing the soil), maximizing efficient nutrient and water use, diversification, sprinkler irrigation and use of more nitrogen efficient and heat-tolerant crop varieties also helps. Use of nitrogen-efficient crops alone could cut the number at risk of undernourishment in developing countries by 120 million by 2050.
For Canadian agriculture, climate change presents a mixed bag of challenges and opportunities. Some regions will enjoy an extension of the growing season together with warmer, shorter winters. But there will also be an increase in frequency and intensity of droughts, wildfires and extreme weather events. Livestock could benefit from lower feed requirements amidst warmer temperatures, but poultry could face an increase in heat-wave deaths. The prairies, home to much of the country’s agricultural land, are likely to be harder hit by climate change than much of the rest of North America, even in the best-case scenarios.
Because Canada already enjoys high levels of agricultural productivity much of the focus in this country is on adaptation. Recent examples include two new adaptation projects that were rolled out in British Columbia’s Okanagan region last month. The first, a drought-status outreach effort aims to improve communication between water suppliers and famers on the status of local water supplies. The second project will transpose a pest-management decision support tool originally developed for tree fruit growers in Washington state that can be used on a mobile phone or tablet. This will be useful in conditions where the geographical range of insects and diseases is expected to change as temperature and precipitation changes.
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