Agriculture and climate change

On Wednesday, experts weighed in on the effects climate change could have on agriculture in the coming years.

At the panel discussion, “Climate Change: the Challenges for Food Security,” four presenters pointed to several general anticipated climate changes that could affect agriculture: rising carbon dioxide levels, rising air temperature, and more extreme environmental events.

Bano Mehdi, a McGill PhD student working at the Brace Centre for Water Resource Management, said that the gradual increase in air temperature and subsequent droughts could have a major effect on crops that are already struggling in hotter climates.

“Crops are already at the threshold of their temperature limits,” said Mehdi.

Sam Gameda, a McGill alumnus who works for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, talked about the effect climate change could have on Canadian and East African agriculture.

“The [Canadian] prairies suffer from relatively frequent droughts,” said Gameda, citing a drought in 2001-2002 that resulted in economic losses upwards of $5 billion for the Canadian crop industry.

Issues are considerably worse in East Africa.

“Areas of East Africa are under stress of food security because of drought. [East African countries] are experiencing droughts, groundwater depletion, and disruption of rainfall,” Gameda said.

“Rainfall is a critical factor,” said Gameda, who pointed to an increase in variability of amounts of rainfall as a major concern. He cited a 23 per cent reduction in rainfall in the past Indian monsoon season as an important indicator, adding that these factors have put 24 million East Africans at risk of hunger and destitution.

Bert Drake, a plant physiologist for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, added that greater environmental stress could reduce crop production.

“More intense hurricanes and rising sea levels could affect low-lying areas, particularly rice production areas,” said Drake.

The projections weren’t overwhelmingly negative, however. “Possible climate changes create favourable conditions for plant growth,” said Galina Stulina, of the Central Asian Scientific Research Institute for Irrigation in Uzbekistan.

A rise in carbon dioxide levels and an increase in season length due to rising air temperature may be positives for plant and crop growth.

“There will be an increase in productivity in developed countries that have strong agricultural markets,” said Mehdi. “There will be opportunities for farmers to plant higher value crops.”

Despite the immediately beneficial climate change effects for Canada, Mehdi warned that the global effects will be far worse.

Mehdi described an anticipated northward extension in crop land, as the northern regions get warmer and southern regions get too hot. North America and Russia may be some of the only regions to benefit from this change, leaving already impoverished nations worse-off.

Mehdi said that the global population will have risen to nine billion by 2050, and as the crop yields of southern nations decrease due to the various climate changes, it will be the responsibility of countries with growing yields to provide for the growing population.

Those in attendance were left with the loaded question of how to distribute limited agricultural goods around the globe.

“There will be higher demands on agricultural commodities,” Mehdi said, “But it has to be done in a sustainable way.”