“Annual global water requirements will reach 6,900 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2030, 40 percent above current sustainable water supplies. The report projects declining supply of sustainable sources of water and increasing demand, affecting economic growth, health, food supplies, social stability, and interstate politics.”
Now, Scientific American has an article on how climate change is affecting agriculture in China. The challenge is substantial and the changes are already taking place. The country needs to feed 1.34 billion people—one-fifth of the world’s population, while it produces slightly less grains than its population needs. In 2011, droughts had wiped out grains for 60 million Chinese. Farmers are cutting back the rate they are planting crops, from twice to once a year, in the Haihe River Basin due to lack of water.
This a reversal of trends from the last several decades in which farmers have “enjoyed an explosion of productivity, thanks partly to genetically manipulated crops that are higher-yielding and resistant to pests and diseases.” Now, regionally adopted crops no longer fit the regions for which they were designed. China has just started to research ways to adapt to these changes
The China example shows how climate change, water security, and agriculture are intertwined, and how they can become serious challenges for the well-being of rising great powers. Fluctuations in food prices and decreasing yields for those who make a living from agriculture can exacerbate social and political tensions, increasing chance of unrest, as what occurred with the Arab Spring.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2011 report, Save and Grow, points out that models of crop intensification used for the green revolution of the mid-20th century have reached their limits. Most of the arable land on Earth is already in use. Yet, the “FAO projections suggest that by 2050 agricultural production must increase by 70 percent globally—and by almost 100 percent in developing countries—in order to meet food demand alone, excluding additional demand for agricultural products used as feedstock in biofuel production. “Concurrently, the world is not producing as much food as before: “wheat yields slipped from about 5 percent a year in 1980 to 2 percent in 2005; yield growth in rice and maize fell from more than 3 percent to around 1 percent in the same period.” The burden will fall to the smallholder farmers—that produce 80 percent of crops for the developing world—to meet future demand.
In order to meet this, the FAO report proposes a new system: sustainable crop production intensification (SCPI), “which produces more from the same area of land while conserving resources, reducing negative impacts on the environment and enhancing natural capital and the flow of ecosystem services.” SCPI includes “conservation agriculture practices, the use of good seed of high-yielding adapted varieties, integrated pest management, plant nutrition based on healthy soils, efficient water management, and the integration of crops, pastures, trees and livestock.”
The report provides several examples of where SCPI has shown results, a few below:
- Since 2005 in the Karatu district of Tanzania, “farmers have stopped ploughing and hoeing and are growing mixed crops of direct-seeded maize, hyacinth bean and pigeon pea. Average per hectare maize yields increased from 1 tonne to 6 tonnes. This dramatic yield increase was achieved without agrochemicals and using livestock manure as a soil amendment and fertilizer.”
- “Some 620,000 farmers on 1.8 million ha of the Indo-Gangetic Plain have used the [Sustainable Rice-Wheat production] system, with average income gains
of US$180 to US$340 per household.”
- “In several provinces of China, site-specific nutrient
management (SSNM) reduced farmers’ use of N-fertilizer
by one third, while increasing
yields by 5 percent. A SSNM strategy was able to
increase uptake efficiency by almost
370 percent on the North China Plain.”
- “A six-year study of winter wheat production on the North China Plain showed water savings of 25 percent
or more through application of deficit irrigation at various growth stages. In normal years, two irrigations (instead of the usual four) of 60 mm were enough
to achieve acceptably high yields and maximize net profits.”
- “Yields have increased from 3 tonnes per ha to 6 tonnes through the use of improved varieties, fertilizer and irrigation. Indonesia drastically reduced spending on pesticide in rice production between 1988 and 2005”
- Conservation agriculture can reduce farm power and energy requirements up to 60 percent.
While these individual cases are promising, SCPI will need to implemented through collaboration between international organizations, governments, civil society, and farmer associations. The FAO estimates an average annual investment “of US $209 billion, at constant 2009 prices, is needed in primary agriculture (such as soil fertility, farm machinery and livestock) and in downstream sectors (storage, marketing and processing) in order to achieve the production increases needed by 2050.” Furthermore investments would need to be made in agricultural research and development, rural infrastructure, and social safety nets.
Last month, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, which was set up by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), called for similar “essential changes in the way we think about farming, food and equitable access to it, and the way these things affect climate change.
” It too recognized that industrial agriculture and genetically-modified crops are not enough.
Ultimately, the ability to meet the resource demands of the 21st century is inextricably tied with environmental sustainability. In agriculture, environmental costs have grown to the point where the current approach has reached its limits. The CGIAR report also points out the need to fix the consumption end of food through “better dietary habits in wealthy countries, which have a disproportionately and unsustainably high calorie intake, and targeted aid to populations whose farming is most at risk.”
Pan Genxing, a Chinese climate and agricultural scientist quoted in the Scientific American article, said, “Agriculture is an ecosystem.” For a rising power like China, a part of its security and confidence will depend on the state of its agriculture. It affects core aspects of society. It can provide stability or precipitate unrest. It contributes to whether a population is healthy and productive. It is central to environmental issues like climate change. It is tied to basic natural resources like water and energy. These are issues to which China and the world need to respond.