Friday, April 24, 2009

Climate Change and Agriculture in the Developing World

When discussing climate change, there are a number of factors that are frequently discussed. Energy used for transportation and buildings often receives most of the attention, but it is important that agriculture enter into the conversation, since it is responsible for 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions, while land use alterations like deforestation account for an additional 17% (FAO). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “crop production and livestock release greenhouse gas emissions into the air such as methane from cattle and wetlands, especially rice paddies, nitrous oxide from fertilizer use and carbon from deforestation and soil degradation. Changes in land use such as deforestation and soil degradation—two devastating effects of unsustainable farming practices—emit large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming” (FAO). Not only does agriculture contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but it will be greatly impacted as a result of any change that occurs.

This is especially important in the world’s developing nations where the impacts will be felt the greatest and where there is the least ability to adapt. This is due not only to different agricultural techniques, rather it is because in developing nations more of the population is directly dependent on agriculture, commonly up to two thirds of the population (Fischer 9), while policies surrounding agriculture are decided in the most powerful nations where only a very small percentage of the population engages directly in agriculture. This is going to need to change if farmers in developing nations are going to be able to slow their impact and adapt to unavoidable changes.

According to Alexander Mueller, FAO Assistant Director-General, “while agriculture is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, farmers and their families, particularly living in poor countries, will also become victims of climate change. It will worsen their living conditions and hunger and malnutrition will increase. Rural communities dependent on agriculture in a fragile environment will face an immediate risk of increased crop failure and loss of livestock” (FAO). Agriculture, then, is a significant subject, as it not only impacts global climate change, but plays a significant role in socio-political and economic issues around the world.

Sub-Saharan Africa is such a region that is expected to be impacted by climate change in many ways, which will in turn affect agriculture, which will in turn affect the population, likely worsening concerns of hunger and poverty. According to Kristin Palitza, writer for the InterPress Service, “environmental researchers predict Southern Africa will be hit heavily by climate change over the next 70 years. Agricultural production is projected to be halved—a development that will threaten the livelihoods of farmers in a region where 70% of the population are smallholder farmers” (Palitza). Significant increases in temperature and decreases in rain will contribute heavily to this problem by increasing the number and length of droughts experienced in the region and increasing the likelihood of natural disasters, crop failures, and pest outbreaks.

The problem, though, is already upon us, and the changes that are predicted to occur are unavoidable. The major issue here is that smallholder farmers in the developing world are ill-equipped to respond to these changes, or even properly anticipate their arrival. Although an inability to adapt will most directly affect the farmers in question, it is possible that even citizens of wealthy nations could feel the far reaching effects of the impact climate change may have on the world food supply. Emphasis, though, should remain on the vulnerability of populations of the developing countries reliant on agriculture for their livelihood, in other words, “the people who will be exposed to the worst of the impacts are the ones least able to cope with the associated risks” (Adger 180).

Considering all of this, it should be understood that there are solutions, and there are means to improve the overall situation. Most importantly, though, is education, one of the major reasons that there are so many problems currently. Throughout the global agricultural system, it is a lack of knowledge of the overall system that has contributed to many of the issues we now face. With better information and a better understanding of the changes they will face, farmers in the developing world would be much better prepared and much more likely to successfully adapt. Some of these adaptations are quite simple, such as planting different crops, increasing variety across a farm, and avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers due to high water consumption associated. Other changes may include adapting to changing seasonal conditions by changing planting and harvesting times to better coincide with nature as opposed to tradition.

For these changes to occur, greater involvement of farmers in the defining of the global agricultural system should be sought, both for their ability to provide appropriate information, as well as for their need to gain knowledge that will help them adapt. According to Dr. Constansia Musvoto, of South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, “farmers are not yet part of the international discussions on climate change, but they have to be” (Palitza). As is true throughout the many food systems across the world, change is required, and in this case there is a lot riding on it: it’s not just about the food.


Palitza, Kristin. “Southern Africa: Climate Change to Shrink Agricultural Production by Half.” InterPress Service: 21 April 2009.

Adger, W. Neil, et al. “Adaptation to climate change in the developing world.” Progress in Development Studies 3. Arnold: 2003.

FAO. “Climate change talks should include farmers.” FAO: April 2009.

Rosenzweig, Cynthia and Martin L. Parry. “Potential impact of climate change on world food supply.” NATURE. Nature Publishing Group: 13 January 1994.

Fischer, Gunther, et al. “Climate Change and Agricultural Vulnerability.” International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis: 2002.

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