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Scientists warn of agrarian crisis from climate change

By Anil Penna (Agence France Press) - November 22, 2007

An agrarian crisis is brewing because of climate change that could jeopardise global food supplies and increase the risk of hunger for a billion poorest of the poor, scientists warned Thursday.

South Asia and Africa would be hardest hit by the crisis, which would shift the world’s priorities away from boosting food output year after year to bolstering the resilience of crops to cope with warm weather, they said.

Rice, the staple for billions of people, is most vulnerable to global warming, said Dyno Keatinge, deputy director general of research at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

“It is the world’s most consumed crop and it makes everything else pale in comparison,” Keatinge told reporters in Hyderabad, southern India, where the research institute has organised a conference on the impact of climate change on farming.

“We have the opportunity to grow other crops that are more resistant to higher temperatures such as sorgum and millet, but changing people’s food habits is very difficult, he said.

The rice yield could fall “very quickly in a warmer world” unless researchers find alternative varieties or ways to shift the time of rice flowering, he added, demanding governments allocate more money to research.

Environmentalists and agricultural scientists are mounting pressure on governments to act quickly to stem carbon emissions responsible for climate change, ahead of next month’s global summit in Bali, Indonesia.

They also want bigger budgets to combat damage already done and cope with risks into the future.

According to the crop research institute, one billion of the world’s poorest are vulnerable to the impact of climate change on agriculture — from desertification and land degradation to loss of biodiversity and water scarcity.

India accounts for about 26 percent of this population, China more than 16 percent, with other Asian countries making up 18 percent and sub-Saharan Africa the remainder.

“Climate change will generally reduce production potential and increase the risk of hunger,” said Martin Parry, co-chair of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former US vice president Al Gore.

“Where crops are grown near their maximum temperature tolerance and where dry land, non-irrigated agriculture predominates, the challenge of climate change could be overwhelming, especially on subsistence farmers,” he said.

Developed economies have systems in place to fight the stresses that the poor lack, posing the risk of wider disparities between the haves and have-nots.

Parry said researchers would have to concentrate on “drought-proofing” crops and developing heat-resistant varieties to cope with the problems, warning that the world was rapidly nearing its tolerance threshold for rising temperatures.

“The challenge will no longer be producing the maximum amounts of food but to meet the increasing variability of climate from time to time,” he said.

Experts from 15 international agricultural research institutions are attending the three-day Hyderabad conference in the run-up to the Bali summit, demanding action by governments before it is too late.

“We continue to wait for crises to stimulate change,” said Simon Best, chairman of the crop research institute. “We are already facing the beginning of a crisis, let’s not wait longer.”

But the precedent set by governments in developing alternative energy resources was “not particularly encouraging” for scientists, given that oil was inching towards 100 dollars a barrel and concerns on the energy front have been rife for decades, Best said.