Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Doom or Hope?

Climate change has increased desertification, deforestation, melting ice caps, higher sea levels, stronger storms, and air pollution and all leading to increased population displacement. The resulting migrants are being called “climate refugees.” Natural disasters displaced 36 million people in 2009, the year of the last full study. Of those, 20 million moved because of climate-change related factors. Scientists predict natural disaster-related refugees to increase to as many as 50 to 200 million in 2050, mostly in developing nations without the resources to cope, such as in poorer coastal countries in Asia, and in regions of Africa subject to desertification. North America, Europe, China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Brazil cause most of the emissions on an absolute, cumulative, and per-capita basis, yet, it is people in the developing countries who suffer most of the effects. Short-term economic gain by developed and emerging economies is trumping considerations for the environment and our fellow human beings.

The continent that’s most at risk from the effects of climate change is Africa. 240 million people in Africa live in extreme poverty, much of which is concentrated in rural areas, on small farms. Many live on the brink. One extreme event can drive people into poverty almost instantly. Rural poverty and food insecurity have long been a reality in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, but rising temperatures and the disruption of seasonal rains upon which millions of small-scale farmers rely is creating altogether new challenges for Africa’s poorest people. Climatologists estimate that in East Africa it is approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer today than it was in the 1980s, while rainfall during the main rainy season has fallen by 15 per cent. Projections also show that if the challenge is not addressed, climate change could drive down yields of staple crops such as rice, wheat and maize by 20 percent in the next 30 years. During the same period, the growing season for grain crops in some regions could shorten by up to 40 percent. A new index that lists the vulnerability and preparedness of countries for changing climate shows that 36 of the states at the very bottom of the list are in sub-Saharan Africa and central to Africa’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change is a heavy reliance on rain-fed agriculture.

Currently, close to 10 million people in Ethiopia are receiving emergency food assistance following the worst drought in half a century, while in Southern Africa up to 32 million people are at risk, following the failure of seasonal rains that has created the worst crisis in 35 years. Hunger will deepen in this region in the coming months too, as grain stores empty, and rural poor households must wait until March until new crops are harvested. Researchers warn that the effects of global warming in sub-Saharan Africa are putting peace and stability in the region at risk, with a recent report from the University of Berkeley concluding that climate factors and the struggle for a share of scarce water resources has increased the risks of conflict in the region significantly.

Today, between 25-30 percent of the income that is generated in sub-Saharan Africa is from agriculture, while up to 70 percent of people rely directly on farming for their survival. Contrast this with the European Union, where farming is responsible for less than 3 percent of GDP, and creates employment, often part-time, for less than 5 percent of working people. At the same time, irrigated agriculture counts for under 6 percent of all agricultural production in Africa, compared to 30 percent in Europe and 35 percent in India.

The message is not all doom and gloom however. Africa’s agricultural sector has huge untapped potential. Under one-third of Africa’s arable farmland is cultivated, while irrigated production can be increased greatly, meaning there is enormous potential to grow much more than at present. Improved farming technologies, better access to good quality seed, reform of land laws, and the utilization of information systems including mobile phones to give farmers timely information, can all contribute greatly to the growth of Africa’s farming sector. ‘Climate smart’ farming practices will enable Africa’s small-holder farmers to grow food in a way that is sustainable, and will help them to use their natural resources wisely. A reduction in food losses due to better storage and packing, improved infrastructure, and stronger links to markets will make agriculture on the continent more productive.

What’s urgently needed is to keep global warming below a catastrophic increase of 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels and ensure the viability and sustainability of the food system for future generations. Cuba was all but cut off from petro-products for more than a decade that led to an emphasis on organic farming. University of California-Berkeley researcher Miguel A. Altieri has argued that the bottom line is that “Cuba has been generally able to adequately feed its people.” And there’s no question that Cuba has increased its food harvests — including a more than 350 percent increase in the production of beans, a staple crop, and 145 percent increase in vegetables between 1988 and 2007 — while cutting the use of agro-chemicals for up to 85 percent for some crops. It also became a world leader in urban agriculture. In Havana alone, more than 87,000 acres have been dedicated to urban agriculture, including food production, animal husbandry and forestry. In 2005, the city’s urban gardens produced 272 metric tons of vegetables. Researchers of agroecology and food security have argued that Cuba’s agricultural revolution can offer an example to follow for other countries