Climate change, food security in Asia

Farmers on the Philippine island of Samar are used to typhoons. In East Asia, the archipelago receives the bulk of these powerful Pacific storms, and Samar, in the country's mid-section, lies on a straight line west of their typical birthplace. But as people emerged after Typhoon Haiyan to vast fields of felled coconut trees, drowned rice paddies, and destroyed banana crops, they knew this time was different.

Typically, according to one farmer from Northern Samar, coconut trees are flexible enough to withstand even strong storms. She said storms often knock down only the tallest trees, planted in less-secure sandy soils, even as less sturdy plants like rice and banana trees are wiped out. Yet, the images from southern Samar and Leyte of vast fields of toppled trees "looked like matchsticks scattered on the ground". This is not the norm.

While it's still too early for an accurate tally of the economic damage, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that Haiyan hit over one million farmers and destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice at the beginning of the main rice-planting season.

These images will dominate discussion this week at the AIDF Food Security Summit in Bangkok.

As the most powerful in a recent string of extreme weather events, Haiyan adds to what a new study calls a "compelling argument that climate change is already having measurable impacts on agriculture in a wide range of economies, crops, and farming systems, over and above the more dramatic effects of major floods and droughts". Floods alone affect some 20 million hectares of rice fields annually in Asia. And in the 2011 floods in Thailand, small farmers in 26 affected provinces lost most of their rice crops.

Indeed, climate change may well prove to be the greatest threat to food security over the next 10-20 years, according to Food Security Challenges in Asia, a working paper completed by Independent Evaluation at the Asian Development Bank.

The paper looks closely at the tangle of challenges to food security in the region laid bare by the impact of the food price crisis of 2007-2012. And to be sure, the region's agriculturalists must contend with a host of complex problems.

For one, to prosper, farmers must diversify and commercialise. Asia's 350 million small farmers - those working on less than two hectares - need to compete and thrive in modern food value chains.

Small farms produce a large share of the region's staple crops and will continue to do so. But this small-scale agriculture needs to evolve from subsistence-oriented production to commercially oriented farming driven by market forces. Failure risks leaving a large share of the poor living in rural poverty.

In addition, the persistent problem of malnutrition in preschool children, which has long-term impacts on society's human capital, needs addressing in a sustainable, financially efficient manner. Despite rising incomes and rapid poverty reduction, reducing malnutrition remains an elusive goal, including in much of South Asia.

What's more, these challenges to food security are obviously interlinked. For a small farmer struggling to feed her children and climb the food-value chain - whether in the Philippines, Indonesia, or Thailand - the loss of a coconut crop in a storm is devastating. It takes a newly planted coconut tree 8-10 years until the first harvest, time that few small farmers can afford more than once. The loss of a one-hectare plot is not just the loss of the pending harvest, but also of initial capital, years of labour, and, often, a sole source of collateral for borrowing money to expand or improve operations. Without this source, it is very difficult to recover. Yet perhaps the biggest challenge is revitalising agricultural productivity to feed Asia's ever more urban and prosperous population amid the simultaneous need to adapt to climate change and create more carbon-neutral agriculture. Climate change impacts should not be thought of as a distant threat. Studies are now documenting what Haiyan has driven home to even the smallest farmers: the rising intensity of rainfall and increased frequency of extreme weather and climate-related disasters.

The potential effects of climate change - from higher temperatures, droughts and floods - present complex changes that need considerable further research. For example, studies are showing that the major food crops - wheat, corn, and rice - grow best within a fairly narrow temperature range: about 15C for wheat, 20C for corn, and 25C for rice. Scientific evidence is revealing the sensitivity of crop yields to temperature spikes that greatly exceed these optima even for short periods.

Along with climate change mitigation, therefore, much more attention needs to be given to agricultural research and adaptation to ensure future agricultural productivity gains and the sustainability of Asia's economic progress. This may be among the most important take-home messages for the community of development professionals, non-government organisations, government officials, researchers and others gathered in Bangkok this week.