THE BLOG

Hotter, Dryer -- Greener? Dryland Farming Confronts Climate Change

12/04/2012 11:23 am ET | Updated Feb 03, 2013

Farmers in the dry lands must go green in a changing climate. Photo: World Bank

Farmers in the dry lands can and must go green in a changing climate. Morocco is already on its way. Photo: World Bank

I'm in Doha, Qatar, where the global climate change community has gathered to determine how we should address climate change, yet again. In a landscape where glass towers emerge from the desert, and lush golf courses color the terrain, an obvious question is how this country will continue to feed a growing population as the climate changes.

I'm here with a consortium of agricultural agencies, farmers, and research groups to highlight the concrete solutions for achieving global food security as the climate changes, while also reducing the emissions that agriculture puts into the atmosphere.

Despite these practical innovations, progress on getting agriculture into the official climate change negotiations has been excruciatingly slow, much slower than the urgent need to achieve food security.

In this regard, the U.N. Climate Change Talks in Doha raise the question of how to achieve food security in the drylands, where droughts are frequent and environmental and soil degradation is widespread. Farmers in these areas already face enormous challenges. Climate change will only compound these problems, bringing new levels of uncertainty and risk.

But drylands are not only sand dunes and deserts; dry areas cover 40 percent of global land mass and are home to 2.5 billion people -- one-third of the global population. Beyond the Middle East, dry areas cover the whole of southern Africa, the Sahel in West Africa, vast swaths of the Southern U.S. and Western Canada, large areas of Latin America and nearly all of Australia.

In all of these areas, food production has declined, but populations are growing rapidly. In developing countries, many people, especially the youth, abandon farming for the prospect of better jobs in the cities, which puts further strain on domestic food supply.

Some dryland countries deal with this situation by importing large amounts of food. Qatar imports around 90 percent of its food, according to the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP). The QNFSP is tasked with reducing the country's dependence on imports, which makes it vulnerable to food price spikes. As climate changes, food commodity markets will become more volatile. Increased prices affect the ability of households to purchase their food. And while many residents of Qatar may be able to pay higher prices, poorer people in the country, and people living in less-developed dryland countries will be much more vulnerable

If dryland countries are serious about dealing with reducing their vulnerability to climate change, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then they need to look at how food is grown, distributed and consumed. The good news is many of the solutions for improving agriculture in the dry areas have been developed over the past 40 years by agricultural research groups such as ICARDA -- The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, which just launched a new research program on Dryland Systems and is working with my group, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. Together we have released a new report outlining some of the tried and tested innovations that are available now. But increased investment and urgent action are needed to bring food security to people in the world's dry areas.

For example, ICARDA has developed improved crop varieties and livestock breeds that can resist temperature extremes, drought and disease. More than 800 new varieties have already been released for cultivation.

Many countries have also implemented successful, large-scale agricultural initiatives that support climate change adaptation, enhance food security and also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food and farming.

In 2008, the Government of Morocco, a country with vast areas of drylands, pledged U.S. $17 billion to transform its entire agricultural sector. As a result, production of crops such as olives, citrus, cereals and dates has increased substantially. The sector has implemented smarter farming practices, and as a result become more resilient to droughts and other shocks. As an added bonus, it's been estimated that this transformation could also help store up to the equivalent of 63.5 million tonnes of C02 emissions over the next 20 years.

This is just one of fourteen inspiring examples that we've collected from around the world, showing that food security can be safeguarded from climate change impacts, and emissions from agriculture can also be reduced, provided the right policies are put in place and sufficient funds are available. Niger, Australia and Ethiopia have also succeeded in implementing large-scale initiatives that are producing positive changes in the food system.

But political action and investment is not keeping up. Already nearly a billion people worldwide suffer from food insecurity, including 30 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa. The probable failure to make advances in Doha means that we must encourage progress elsewhere. We should be encouraging and rewarding countries such as Morocco, Nigerand Ethiopia, as well as the donor agencies funding these initiatives and the many farmers moving forward by themselves with agricultural adaptation and mitigation.

Bruce Campbell is Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). CCAFS is one of the organisations Agriculture, Landscapes and Livelihoods Day which takes place on 3 December in Doha.