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Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

A potential 5 percent decrease in the growing season could mean limited food access for an estimated 266 million in parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Areas in red are food-insecure and intensively farmed regions. Areas in yellow, blue or green have a lower sensitivity to climate change impacts.

Climate change could result in food shortages for millions

by Ja'Nel Johnson
June 03, 2011

Scientists predict that climate change could result in food shortages and poverty for millions who rely on agriculture as a means of income in the Tropics.

A report, released Friday, by the Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, surveys global “hotspots” and explores ways to help vulnerable communities deal with climate change.

The program is a research initiative of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global partnership of organization devoted to sustainable development.
Researchers found areas that are already experiencing food shortages due to climate changes could become “hotspots” in the next 40 years meaning the areas will have shorter, hotter or drier growing seasons which could devastate people in parts of Asia, Africa, China, India and South America. 

“The sensitivity of food symptoms may be high and the coping capacity of those people may be low,” said Philip Thornton, co-author of the study "Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics. Thornton is a researcher with the program on climate change, agriculture and food security.

Though not part of the study, other researchers are looking at the toll climate change may take on weather and crops in the U.S.

For the global report, scientists used climate models and indicators of food problems to pinpoint “hotspots” and created detailed maps of these areas.

In regions of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 266 million people considered "food-insecure" live in areas that could experience a 5 percent decrease in the growing season over the next 40 years. That, in turn, could significantly affect food yields and food access for people.

Another 170.5 milion people in parts of West Africa, India and China could be "food-insecure" do to the impact of rising temperatures on many crops such as beans, maize and rice, according to the study. 

Areas of China and Latin America are also projected to experience food declines because of climate change, but to a lesser degree. “It’s going to make life increasingly tough because climate change is one factor that these people are already dealing with,” said Thornton, interviewed by telephone in the United Kingdom.

Thornton said high population growth rates, lack of natural resources and increasing food prices all add to the problem.

“That highlights the need for research and development to implement programs that can help them adapt to quite different circumstances in the future,” he said.

Thornton said farmers can switch their crops or livestock to those that are more tolerant to droughts. He said some farmers have started using camels instead of cattle because they can withstand higher temperatures. Some have also started growing cassava in place of wheat and rice.

He said farmers can also change the way they manage crops and make better use of the rain that does fall by planting differently. He also said households could consider taking on work outside of or in addition to farming so that they will have income.

“Even if the crops aren’t doing well, they can still purchase food for their families,” he said.

Thornton said many of the bad effects of climate change will be felt in tropical regions. But North America is experiencing changes as well, according to Steven Forman professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“There are projections out there that Chicago will have the climate of east Texas by 2050 or 2080,” he said. “That’s what may happen in the future if we don’t reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.”
Forman said Chicago might experience increasing heat waves such as those of 1995 and 2001 where extreme heat settled over the city for days and weeks in a row.

He said temperatures like that cause the mortality rate to spike because elderly people, children and people who live alone are more susceptible to heat related deaths.

“In the future we’re going to have hotter temperatures and more rainfall which will force people to deal with even more frequent flooding,” he said.

Forman said, as of April, greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide were at 393 parts per million and emissions of methane were about 1,700 parts per billion. Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide were 280 parts per million and methane levels were 700 parts per billion.

Forman said southwestern parts of the country and the Great Plains, where so much wheat is grown, tend to be significantly dryer, which limits yields. Dryer controls will require more irrigation in areas with diminishing water resources.

“People are concerned that the Ogallala Aquifer will be depleted and they haven’t come up with ways to avoid that,” he said.

The aquifer is 174,000 square miles and provides water for parts of South Dakota, Wyoming, Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Forman said carbon emissions need to be reduced in order to stave off the worst effects of global warming. He said switching to natural gases instead of using coal as a fuel generator would help tremendously.

“Things have to be done quickly in terms of lowering our carbon footprint,” he said.