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United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Environment Programme

Climate Change Worse for the South

By Marcela Valente*

Crop yields will decline, temperate zones will disappear and the number of people suffering hunger will increase, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The developing South will bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change, expert Prabhu Pingali told Tierramérica.

BUENOS AIRES - The forecast of a United Nations agency about the effects that climate change will have on Latin American and Caribbean agriculture by 2080 seems to be taken straight from the story of the Apocalypse.

Crop production will suffer, temperate zones of some countries will disappear completely, food prices will increase, and there will be more and more people suffering hunger, Prabhu Pingali, director of the agricultural and development economics division of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told Tierramérica.

FAO worked with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), based in Austria, to develop a methodology for predicting the impact on global agriculture of the gradual increase in average temperatures caused by the emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

IIASA is an international non-governmental organization made up of research teams on environment, technology and global economy. Its 160-page study ''Climate change and agricultural vulnerability'', released in 2002, is one of the bases of the predictions Pingali has made for what the world will be facing in 2080.

The analysis indicates, according to Pingali, that industrialized countries, on average, are going to see substantial benefits in potential farm production, because many areas of North America, Europe and Russia will become suitable for grain farming due to rising temperatures.

In contrast, the developing world is going to lose out, he warns. For Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Africa and Asia, the forecast climate changes to take place in this century vary from region to region, but in all cases are discouraging.

''Climate change impacts on agriculture will be seen mainly in terms of a rise in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns,'' with extremes of drought and flooding, said the FAO official. ''The temperate zones of Argentina and Chile are expected to disappear completely.''

''Rain-fed crop production, in general, is expected to face water stress or drought conditions,'' and in South America the land not receiving sufficient rainfall is expected to rise from 170 million hectares today to 320 million hectares by 2080, Pingali said.

The increased frequency of droughts could ''dramatically reduce crop yields and livestock numbers in rain-fed production systems.''

In Central America and the Caribbean, the increase in land with precipitation shortages will be less than in South America, but still significant: from 75 million to 100 million hectares in 2080.

''The length of crop growing period is also expected to become much shorter in the sub-tropical and tropical zones, this change would be most visible in northeast Brazil and the Amazon region,'' said Pingali.

In Brazil, northeast Argentina, and Uruguay, ''it is not just average rainfall levels that will be affected, but also year-to-year variability of rainfall, which will be particularly high.''

According to IIASA and FAO, the arid land in northeast Brazil will become even more so, and less suitable for growing grains.

Argentine climatologist Osvaldo Canziani, member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an advisory group to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), told Tierramérica that some of the predicted changes are beginning to be seen in Argentina's most productive farming region.

Canziani conducted a study on precipitation in the past 200 years in Argentina's Pampas, located in the central region and the most fertile for farming and ranching.

That study showed that huge storms, with precipitation of more than 100 mm, occurred every three years on average. Today, the inverse is true: every year there are three huge rainstorms.

Wheat and maize crops will be most affected by the increase in temperature, and are expected to disappear from more and more parts of Paraguay and Brazil, said Pingali.

''Maize in Central America and sugar in the Caribbean would also be expected to face negative consequences to yields arising from climate change-related water stress,'' he said.

In the Caribbean states, food insecurity will be exacerbated due to the loss of farmland and cultivated land and nursery areas for fisheries caused by inundation and coastal erosion resulting from more frequent extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reports that in the 1970-2001 period natural disasters in Latin America had a death toll of 246,569 people and affected 144.9 million more, with economic consequences estimated at 68.6 billion dollars. The majority of the natural disasters were climate related.

But above all, climate change impacts on agriculture will have direct implications for humans. Pingali predicts ''an increase in the number of people at risk of hunger,'' and that food insecurity ''will be higher in countries with low economic growth potential that currently have high malnourishment levels.''

In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are currently 53 million malnourished people, according to FAO. Around 30 percent are in Central America and the Caribbean, and another 30 percent in Brazil.

Food prices will increase in some areas, and ''subsistence producers could be at the greatest risk, both from a potential drop in productivity as well as from the danger of losing crop genetic diversity that has been preserved over generations,'' said Pingali.

''Production losses due to climate change may drastically increase the number of undernourished, severely hindering progress against poverty and food insecurity,'' said the FAO official.

* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent.

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. All Rights Reserved


External Links

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

FAO - U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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