Farmers worldwide are entering a period of increasing uncertainty as climate change compromises food production in areas already sensitive to food insecurity, a new report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization cautions. And the group predicted to be most affected will be women.
The annual report by the FAO, the top global collector of data on global food and farming trends, ties together poverty, hunger, and climate change to persuade governments to adopt policy changes that will protect farmers of the future. The 2016 edition of The State of Food and Agriculture urges countries to help their farmers rely less on natural resources and to find ways to use water and fertilizer more efficiently.
"We need to make major changes in the way we produce food and manage agricultural systems," says Rob Vos, director of agricultural economics for the Food and Agriculture Organization. "Climate change is already affecting many parts of the world, particularly in Africa and many tropical areas. If we don't make the systems involved in agriculture more resilient, food security will be in jeopardy."
All farmers will be affected by global changes, but the FAO says the impact on women will be the most dramatic. Female farmers account for 43 percent of agricultural workers in developing countries, yet they face substantial disadvantages compared to men, including disproportionally high demands on their time to run a home, paltry access to agricultural tools and methods, and limitations in the credit markets that allow others to remain nimble in the face of environmental changes. Women worldwide tended to invest less money in things that might make their farms more productive.
"The obstacles that confront women farmers mean that they achieve lower yields than their male counterparts," an FAO dossier on Women and Agriculture reported in 2011, the last time the organization comprehensively studied female farmers. "Yet women are as good at farming as men. Solid empirical evidence shows that if women farmers used the same level of resources as men on the land they farm, they would achieve the same yield levels."
Researchers point to particular risk for countries the UN describes as "developing"—those with little access to the farming technology that makes climate change a less daunting foe in wealthier countries. But it warns that warming temperatures and less predictable rainfall are expected to hurt agriculture on every continent. (For more on how this affects African nations, see How African Farmers Face a Warming Climate.)
In North America, yields of major crops, including corn and soybeans, will decline modestly through 2050, followed by a steeper decline by 2100, the report says. The stress of higher heat and reduced quality of forage for livestock is projected to reduce milk quality. South America may see higher wheat and soybean productivity, thanks to higher temperatures, but increased salinity will yield more desert zones in parts of Brazil and Chile that now support a good deal of those countries’ crops.
Scientists expect areas in Europe and Asia to benefit from thawing polar regions that will open new arable land, yet higher temperatures will increase demand for water and cause substantial drop-offs in rice yields over large areas of these continents. Likewise, in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, farmers will face extended seasons of heavy rain and parching drought.
The continent most at risk is Africa, largely a result of fragmented food systems, high poverty, and government instability. Progress that several countries have made on food security and crop diversity may be undone when those crops, such as maize and rice, are unsuited for a warmer world, and when farmers don't have the money or resources to make investments in new seeds, farming methods, or equipment.
Amid the report's urgent warnings and cautionary suggestions is also some good news. FAO officials say that India and Kenya are examples of countries making the right moves. Both countries are at high risk for climate disaster, but the Indian government has implemented policies to help its farmers diversify their farm production, as well as directly empower women. In one community project in the Indian state of Maharashtra, builders installed new sources of drinking water and firewood, which reduced the amount of time women spent collecting both.
The worst-case scenarios of climate change could erode much of this progress, however, causing India and Kenya's agricultural sectors to slide back into "developing" status. Officials use this fact to underscore the urgency of instituting smart agriculture practices immediately.
No country will be inoculated from the harsh impacts of climate change. Every place on Earth trying to feed a growing population an increasingly diverse diet—which is to say, every country—will find significant challenges posed by warming temperatures, even if changes turn out to be modest.
The United States will face its share of challenges. But it is one of the best equipped nations for agricultural adaptation considering its widespread availability of seeds, technology, and weather monitoring systems. A 2015 study from Carnegie Mellon University found that for the U.S. to grow more fruits and vegetables over the next several decades, it would need to increase its energy use by 38 percent, its water by 10 percent. This would also result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions by six percent.
On top of adapting to climate change, farmers will also face new demands to meet changing nutrition standards, while at the same time reducing environmental impact of their activities. Individual farmers can do their part, but the lasting solution, FAO officials say, will come from governments. “There are a number of compounding factors that come together," says Vos. "If those factors can be addressed all together, they can drive big changes for everyone."