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Impact of climate change on water availability and food security

05 July 2011

An FAO survey of the current scientific understanding of the impact of climate change has been published, warning that climate change ‘will have major impacts on the availability of water for growing food and on crop productivity in the decades to come’. The survey sees increased research, in order to map the vulnerabilities of specific regions, as ‘a key task at national and regional levels’.

The FAO survey highlights how rainfall ‘is predicted to increase in the tropics and higher latitudes, but decrease in the already dry semi-arid to mid-arid latitudes and in the interior of large continents’, leading to ‘a greater frequency in droughts and floods’. Overall, ‘water-scarce areas of the world are expected to become drier and hotter’, while ‘increased temperatures will lengthen the growing season in northern temperate zones but will reduce the length almost everywhere else’.

According to the FAO, ‘both the livelihoods of rural communities as well as the food security of city populations are at risk’, while the rural poor ‘who are the most vulnerable, are likely to be disproportionately affected.’

At the policy level, the FAO calls for better water management through the increased use of ‘water accounting’ in order to improve decision-making around water utilisation. At the farm level the FAO calls for growers to ‘change their cropping patterns to allow earlier or later planting, reducing their water use and optimizing irrigation’. The FAO maintains that ‘yields and productivity can be improved by shifting to soil moisture conservation practices, including zero- and minimum tillage.’ However the FAO ‘also stresses that small-scale producers in developing countries will face an uphill struggle in adopting such strategies’.

Getting to grips with the challenges facing smallholder farmers is one of the area highlighted in the Oxfam report ‘Growing a Better Future’, published in May 2011. The report maintains that prices of staple food products are set to double in the next 20 years, with half of this increase being attributable to climate change. The Oxfam report calls for government action to:

  • invest in sustainable agriculture, and particularly in the ability of small holder farmers to respond to climate change;
  • promote better management of the global food system, including through the use of food reserves, the introduction of greater transparency in the operation of commodity markets, and rules to limit speculation and the use of export restrictions;
  • review flawed biofuel policies, which use basic grains as a feedstock for marginal gains in CO2 emission reductions;
  • bring an an end to trade-distorting agricultural subsidies;
  • enable increased research and fiscal support for clean energy.

In May 2011, EAC agriculture ministers held a two-day meeting on ‘Food security and climate change’. Ministers called for an increase in countries’ budget allocation to agriculture to at least 10% by 2015, and for the establishment of appropriate coordination structures to ensure the operational implementation of existing commitments. The EAC Secretariat was directed by the ministers to ‘actively engage in agriculture, food security, environment and climate change policy processes at regional and international levels’.

At the end of May, the EAC Secretariat committed itself to establishing a quarterly reporting system on non-tariff barriers to trade, in an attempt to fast-track their elimination. This is seen by a wide range of stakeholders as critical to the effective working of the East African Community common market.

Editorial comment

The climate change challenge is multi-faceted, and has important interfaces with a number of agricultural trade issues. Some analysts emphasise the importance of liberalising trade in order to meet the challenge of climate change. Removing tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade is seen as facilitating the movement of staple food from food-surplus to food-deficit regions, enhancing the capacity of vulnerable areas to deal with the unevenly distributed consequences of climate change. Other analysts have stressed the importance of trade policy in ensuring commercially sustainable market opportunities for expanded smallholder staple food production.

These discussions relate directly to the use of a range of agricultural and agricultural trade policy tools, from export restrictions to the use of domestic subsidies. Equally they relate to mobilising investment in order to get to grips with infrastructural and logistical non-tariff barriers to trade, as well as addressing issues related to the functioning of supply chains, to make sure that the costs and benefits of adjustment to climate change are evenly distributed.

However within many ACP regions there is as yet no consensus on what types of agricultural trade policy tools contribute most effectively to promoting sustainable agricultural development in an era of accelerating climate change. The current controversies within the EAC over the use of export restrictions, import duty rebates, and the elimination of non-tariff barriers to trade in staple food products are illustrative in this regard (see Agritrade article ‘ Maize trade policy decisions highlight need for closer regional policy h...’, July 2011).

In the coming years ACP ministers are likely to face difficult decisions as commitments to deal with climate change through coordinated regional action come up against the constraint of divergent national policy practices designed to ensure that the national basis of staple food production is not undermined.

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