Climate and Agriculture Today

A broad perspective on world agriculture today recognizes that along with a remarkable success story in production, a number of major problems remain and more are looming on the horizon. These threats are more due to the economics of demand and distribution than simple production. There are still many hungry and malnourished people on the planet, mostly in developing countries and in low latitude climates. Trade barriers, including massive subsidies in the US and the EU, obstruct the logical and reasonable exploitation of the comparative advantages that varied climate regimes offer. The same tropical agricultural producer countries that are failing to meet the food requirements of their own populations find that their commercial products are excluded or subjected to tariff barriers in the world's most affluent markets. This applies especially to those "temperate climate" food staples that can be produced in the cooler regions of low latitude countries.

New technologies, among which genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are currently a salient example, threaten dislocation and possible new environmental and health risks as well as substantial production benefits to those who are able and willing to use them. Highly commercialized capital intensive farming systems dependent upon scientific knowledge from veterinary science to plant genetics, meteorology, hydrology, soil physics and chemistry, are displacing the traditional diversity of farming systems and their associated social and community structures. The whole notion of adaptive capacity is taking on a new meaning. What can and will be done to adapt to changes is less and less in the hands of the farmers themselves, and more and more dependent upon agri-business, and the global political economy.

The threat of climate change comes as a new and additional concern on top of these current concerns. The adaptation of agriculture to climate change has to be seen in this larger context.

The agro-meteorological community has a strong record of contributions to the resilience of agriculture including in developed countries. Sophisticated experiments and modeling have provided new knowledge that can be applied in cultivar design and selection, and in farm management. The success of this work depends on finding a receptive audience in the shape of an innovative and modernizing farming community eager to increase productivity and efficiency. In the face of climate change the same approach is being advocated and implemented in developing countries. There is currently much excitement about the improvements being made in seasonal forecasting, and efforts to improve and disseminate better weather information to farmers are being energetically pursued. Evaluation studies show that the benefits to farmers and the economy in terms of increased productivity considerably outweigh the costs of producing and disseminating the information. With experience the service is being improved by the incorporation of greater knowledge of the type of information required, timely delivery, and the design of information packages targeted more precisely to specific needs. There is no doubt that this work is valuable and should be vigorously supported. But by themselves these advances in technology will not be sufficient to deal with the new threats of climate change.

In the context of these developments, and the multiple stresses that the farming communities are exposed to, what more might be done to enhance resilience in the face of climate change? If better answers are to be found to the opening questions a more sophisticated understanding of adaptation is required.

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