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UN Food Agency Warns of "Potentially Catastrophic" Food Impacts

Prepare for long-term climate change impacts on food production: FAO

The Hindu, April 1, 2011

NEW DELHI: “Potentially catastrophic” impacts on food production from slow-onset climate changes are expected to increasingly hit the developing world in the future, and action is required now to prepare for those impacts, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned on Thursday in a report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Food production systems and the ecosystems they depended on were highly sensitive to climate variability and change. Changes in temperature, precipitation and related outbreaks of pest and diseases could reduce production. Poor people in countries that depended on food imports were particularly vulnerable to such effects, the FAO said.

“Currently the world is focused on dealing with shorter-term climate impacts caused mainly by extreme weather events that is absolutely necessary,” said FAO Assistant Director-General for Natural Resources Alexander Müller.

But, Mr. Müller pointed out, the ‘slow-onset' impacts were expected to bring about deeper changes that would challenge the ecosystem services needed for agriculture, with potentially disastrous impacts on food security during the period from 2050 to 2100. “Coping with long-term changes after the fact doesn't make much sense. We must already today support agriculture in the developing world to become more resilient,” he said.

“While these changes occur gradually and take time to manifest themselves, we can't simply ignore them,” Mr. Müller said, underscoring the need to “move beyond our usual tendency to take a short-term perspective and instead invest in the long-term.” “If we're looking to assess vulnerability to climate change, it makes very good sense to look at food security as one important indicator.”

The FAO outlined measures that governments could consider in climate change negotiations to ensure that food security was not threatened. It recommended that food security be used as an indicator of vulnerability to climate change. Asserting that managing the long-term risk of climate change was important, it said that within the global adaptation to climate change, greater space should be given to the risks linked to slow-onset impacts of climate change, particularly food security risks that had so far received little attention in the climate change agenda.

A crucial measure highlighted in the FAO submission is need to develop staple food varieties better adapted to expected future climatic conditions. Plant genetic material stored in gene banks should be screened with future requirements in mind and additional plant genetic resources — including those from wild relatives of food crops — must be collected and studied because of the risk that they may disappear.

Climate-adapted crops such as varieties of major cereals resistant to heat, drought, submergence and salty water could be cultivated. However, the FAO stressed that this should be done in ways that respected breeders' and farmers' rights, in accordance with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources.

It suggested that countries consider food security as a socio-economic safeguard for climate change mitigation measures. Meeting the increasing demand for fuel, food and carbon storage would challenge policymakers to capture synergies and manage tradeoffs between competing land uses. Already bio-fuel production, a mitigation response measure, has been associated with spiking food prices in 2007-2008.