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A Bad Climate for Food

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Every day seems to bring a new story of the impacts of climate change on poor farmers and families around the world. Last week, the New York Times brought us a dramatic report of scorched farmland in the "heartland of the Fertile Crescent" where hundreds of thousands of people have fled as dispossessed farmers and their families in Syria and Iraq adjust to four consecutive years of drought.

From the Times:
"For Syria, which is running out of oil reserves and struggling to draw foreign investment, the farming crisis is an added vulnerability in part because it is taking place in the area where its restive Kurdish minority is centered. Iraq, devastated by war, is now facing a water crisis in both the north and the south that may be unprecedented in its history. Both countries have complained about reduced flow on the Euphrates, thanks to massive upriver dam projects in Turkey that are likely to generate more tension as the water crisis worsens."

It doesn't take a very limber imagination to see how these dynamics (drought, poverty, war, ethnic unrest, scarce resources shared by neighboring countries with competing priorities) might be a recipe for dangerous and destructive outcomes. And if we listen to the expertise of military experts and climate scientists, it is precisely these dynamics that increasingly put our national and global security at risk. That is, unless we stand up and do something about it.

Climate change is undermining food security from Iowa to India. As situations like those in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Mozambique and countless other places show us, the line between food security and global stability is dim at best. That is why as we mark yet another World Food Day, we must find solutions that support those on the front lines of both the fight against hunger and the fight against climate change. And if you know where to look, those solutions are all around us.

Just last week the White House's Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force released a report, which recommends investments in the resilience of communities in the US and developing countries that are vulnerable to climate change. The report shows that the administration is committed to helping communities on the front lines of climate change. It has the added benefit of being a fiscally responsible approach. If we've learned anything from the horrific images of this summer's extreme weather from Russia to Pakistan, it's that we need to prepare for the consequences of climate change now or we will inevitably pay the expensive and punishing price later, not just in dollars but also in lives lost.

Fortunately, there are very tangible ways to support the efforts of at risk populations to adapt to climate change and fight hunger. One example is an innovative but very simple way of growing rice that significantly increases yields with less water. Called by the fancy name of "System of Rice Intensification, this technique could have significant impacts if applied widely around the world. After all, rice is the major source of calories for half the world's population, and is the single largest source of employment and income for people who live in rural areas, where the poor are. But climate change is putting rice production at risk, which could dramatically increase hunger. By 2050, climate change could depress world rice production by 12-14% according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Rice production is also highly water intensive, accounting for one-quarter to one-third of the planet's annual freshwater use. Yes, you read this right: between one quarter and one third of freshwater used in the world is for rice production. With climate change putting pressure on freshwater resources, like in Syria, the status quo of rice production comes into question.

SRI can be a game changer helping to increase farmer incomes and reduce hunger for millions of poor people around the world. If governments and donors are serious about efforts to protect our food supply and build resilience to climate change, they will give serious support to SRI programs. But SRI is just one example of the countless ideas out there to support small farmers in the face of climate change. SRI can help us get there, but first the world's leaders must get on board.

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