To better address the interactions between climate change and sustainability of food and fiber production, we suggest the following areas for future research attention.
Another bifurcation in the field of climate impacts has occurred between research on responses to major systems of climate variability, such as between the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and long-term global warming. The insights that have been gained from studies of agriculture in regard to these two timescales — seasonal to interannual vs. decadal to century — need to be reconciled.
The work on seasonal-to-interannual climate forecasts has tended to focused on short-term decision making in regard to predictions of El Niño and La Niña events, which are manifested in terms of climate extremes. The role of local stakeholders is crucial at these timescales, and responses are focused on adaptation.
The work on the decadal-to-century timescale, on the other hand, has focused primarily on responses to mean changes and long-term decisions. The stakeholders for climate change impact studies have often been national policymakers. The goal here has usually been to provide information needed to help these decision makers to decide long-term strategies in regard to the climate change issue, in terms of both mitigation and adaptation.
New theoretical constructs are needed to link climate-agriculture interactions on the two timescales, as are new ways to use analytic tools such as dynamic crop growth models and statistical analyses. We need to move beyond the more tractable projections of crop responses to mean changes, and tackle the more difficult, yet more relevant, issue (to farmers and agricultural planners) of how crops may respond to altered climate variability, such as changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme events.
Analysis of temperature records from around the world shows that many regions are already experiencing a warming trend, especially from the 1970s to the present (Figure 10.12). Warmer-than-normal springs have been documented in western North America since the late 1970s (Cayan et al., 2001). In some areas of the world, there have also been recent episodic increases in floods (e.g., North America) and droughts (e.g., Sahel) (IPCC, 2001), with likely but as yet mostly undocumented effects on food production. The responses of agricultural systems to such changes need to be monitored and documented. Have farmers indeed switched to earlier planting dates? Have they changed cultivars? And are there any trends in yields that can be discerned in conjunction with the climate trends?
Such questions are difficult to answer because other factors besides climate, such as land-use change and pollution, have been occurring simultaneously. But they are important for furthering our understanding of agricultural adaptation to climate, and for validating the many simulation studies
done on potential climate change impacts in the future. These analyses will contribute to the IPCC Fourth Assessment now under way.
A final bifurcation that needs to be resolved is the reconciling of global and local/regional scales. Recent work has emphasized the importance of scale in estimating the impacts of climate variability and change on agriculture (Mearns, 2003). In order to understand how a changing climate will affect agriculture, we must find new ways to bring detailed knowledge at local and regional scales to bear on global analyses. If we do not, our analyses may be in error.
This is because agriculture in any one region is linked to other agricultural regions, and indeed to the world food system, both through trade and the food donor system. As a changing climate shifts the comparative advantage in one or more regions, other regions will inevitably be affected. Thus, in our research on agriculture and climate change, we need to link regional "place-based" studies of vulnerability and adaptation, as well as mitigation, into a global synthesis.
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