Sustainable agriculture: Urgent action needed to adapt to climate change, report finds

Agricultural systems will need to transform significantly in order to adapt to climate change, according to a new study from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

Without careful planning for uncertain climate impacts, the chances of getting adaptation wrong are high

Without careful planning for uncertain climate impacts, the chances of getting adaptation wrong are high

The research, published in the Environmental Research Letters journal, warns that, without careful planning for uncertain climate impacts, the chances of getting adaptation wrong are high. 

The study comprises a global scenario analysis and specifically examines adaptations that are investment-intensive and not easily reversible, such as building new management infrastructure for irrigation.

IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Programme researcher David Leclère, who led the study, said: "There is a lot of uncertainty in how climate change will impact agriculture, and what adaptations will be needed.

"Our new study is the first to examine at a global scale whether the adaptations required from agricultural systems are in the transformational range, and whether these transformations are robust across plausible scenarios. By looking at where, when, why, and which transformations are required, but also in how many scenarios, it lays the groundwork for countries to better plan for the impacts of climate change."

Crop yields

The study also found that the impacts of climate change on crop yields - such as increased temperature, changing precipitation levels and increased CO2 atmospheric concentration - could lead to anywhere between an 18% decline and a 3% increase in global caloric production from cropland by 2050.

By combining climate and yield projections with the IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) - a global model that includes land use, trade, consumption, water resources and other factors - the researchers were able to identify transformations to agricultural systems to be able to adapt to climate change.

Leclère said: "Our results confirm that the choice of the climate model used for estimating changes in climate largely shapes adaptations such as moving production from one region to another.

"But it also shows the importance of how regions are interconnected through trade: for example, in Latin America, where yields are projected to decrease in all scenarios, cropland could increase in some scenarios due to increased net exports to North America.

"In Europe, where yields are expected to increase due to climate change, cultivated land could decrease depending on the scenario, due to limited export opportunities."

Water crisis

The study underlines the effect of limited water resources on future food security in a changing climate showing that, in a large part of the world, more than 25% increases in irrigation may be required.

Leclère said: "We have known for a long time that changes to rainfall are a major uncertainty. This study shows how important irrigation will be as an adaptive measure, but also how sensitive it is to different climate scenarios."

The overall conclusion of the study is that, even though most climate change adaptations are entering the transformational range by the mid-21st century, very few will be robust in all situations.

IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Programme director and study co-author Michael Obersteiner said: "After decades of global research efforts, scientists are only starting to understand the implications of climate change for the future global food system.

"We need to explore new and uncertainty-proof paradigms for long-term decision-making, and we also need a much better understanding of how to manage crucial resources such as water, which may become dramatically scarcer much earlier than previously thought."

VIDEO: How will climate change transform agriculture?

In November, edie reported on an incendiary report from a NASA scientist which warns that the world's water supplies are rapidly dwindling sparked calls for changes to UK water policy.

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Lois Vallely


agriculture | food | Infrastructure


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