The threat posed by global warming was front and center at the annual meeting of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, better known as the CGIAR, an internationally-funded consortium that runs a global network of agricultural research centers.
CGIAR administrators and scientists at the Washington gathering focused on ways to reverse the potentially devastating climate trends they believe threaten the world's food security.
Martin Parry is director of the Jackson Environment Institute of the University of East Anglia in England.
He says the conventional response to global warming, taking steps to reduce industrial emissions of CO2 and other planet-warming gases, won't be enough to help farmers in the field. "We are going to have to adapt. Even if we chop emissions off at the knees now we are not going to be able to mitigate our way out of the problem."
Temperatures Rise Productivity Falls
With temperatures projected to rise between 1.5 and 5 degrees Celsius over the next century, the productivity of the world's most important food crops is expected to drop. Farmers will face a shorter growing season and more severe weather events like floods, droughts and storms. Martin Parry says those most affected will be those least able to cope. "Almost all those increases in risk of hunger are projected to be in the poorest countries and regions of Africa."
Cynthia Rosenzweig is leader of the Climate Impacts Research Group for NASA, the U.S. Space Agency. She says climate data over the last 30 years indicate that many agricultural regions have warmed. "In response we're seeing changes in phenology, changes in livestock with heat stress, changes in management practices, pests and diseases."
The warm temperatures are also beginning to suppress crop yield
Just three degrees of warming, scientists say, would put as many as 550 million people at risk of hunger and malnutrition.
Cynthia Rosenzweig says in response to this looming threat, farmers, some of whose agricultural practices also contribute to global warming, must both reduce greenhouse emissions and adapt to the climate change. "It's not an either or situation. All agriculture is going to be faced with the effects of warming temperatures no matter how much we mitigate."
That would mean new crops that could withstand heat or salt or water. Climate expert Martin Parry suggests new plant and animal breeding programs, more efficient rural electrification and greater access to food through a revived market and tariff structures.
The head of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, Robert Ziegler, says researchers have already created the kind of climate-adapted crops that farmers need, "Both flood tolerant rice and drought tolerant maize are already in the farmers' fields being evaluated by farmers."
Ziegler says much more work must be done to address agricultural problems created by climate change. Moving that initiative forward he announced to CGIAR. delegates the formation of a global partnership between the international agricultural and climate change research communities. "I think this is a revolutionary proposition. We have large groups of scientists and researchers who are looking at the issues around development and large groups who are looking at issues around the environment. Rarely do these groups come together if ever except to fight."
The meeting to set priorities and chart a plan of action will take place early in 2007.