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Potentially catastrophic climate impacts on food production over the long-term

Food security merits greater space in the climate change agenda

31 March 2011, Rome - "Potentially catastrophic" impacts on food production from slow-onset climate changes are expected to increasingly hit the developing world in the future and action is needed now to prepare for those anticipated impacts, FAO warned today in a submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

"Currently the world is focused on dealing with shorter-term climate impacts caused mainly by extreme weather events," said Alexander Müller, FAO Assistant-Director General for Natural Resources.

"This is absolutely necessary," he continued. "But 'slow-onset' impacts are expected to bring deeper changes that challenge the ecosystem services needed for agriculture, with potentially disastrous impacts on food security during the period from 2050 to 2100. Coping with long-term changes after the fact doesn't make much sense. We must already today support agriculture in the developing world to become more resilient," he said.

"While these changes occur gradually and take time to manifest themselves, we can't simply ignore them," said Müller, adding: "We need to move beyond our usual tendency to take a short-term perspective and instead invest in the long-term."

In its submission, FAO outlines steps that governments could consider in climate change negotiations to ensure that food security is not threatened.

Food insecurity as an indicator of vulnerability to climate change

FAO recommends that food security be used as an indicator of vulnerability to climate change.

Food production systems, and the ecosystems they depend on, are highly sensitive to climate variability and climate change. Changes in temperature, precipitation and related outbreaks of pest and diseases can reduce production. Poor people in countries that depend on food imports are particularly vulnerable to such effects.

"If we're looking to assess vulnerability to climate change, it makes very good sense to look at food security as one important indicator," said Müller.

Managing the long-term risks of climate change is important

FAO suggests that within the global adaptation architecture greater space be given to the risks linked to slow-onset impacts of climate change, particularly food security risks. These have so far received little attention within the climate change agenda.

One key measure highlighted in the FAO submission is the need to develop staple food varieties that are better adapted to expected future climatic conditions.

Plant genetic material stored in gene banks should be screened with future requirements in mind. Additional plant genetic resources -- including those from wild relatives of food crops - must be collected and studied because of the risk that they may disappear.

Climate-adapted crops - for example varieties of major cereals that are resistant to heat, drought, submergence and salty water - can be bred. FAO stressed however that this should be done in ways that respect breeders' and farmers' rights, in accordance with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources.

Food security consequences of climate change mitigation efforts

FAO suggests that countries consider food security as a socio-economic safeguard for mitigation measures. Meeting increasing demand for fuel, food and carbon storage will challenge national policy-makers to capture synergies and manage trade-offs between competing land-uses. Already biofuel production (a mitigation response measure) has been associated with spiking food prices in 2007-2008. Also, there are signs that the success of REDD+ (an initiative to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and increase the carbon stock in forests) will depend on how successfully the linkages with agriculture are managed.

Source: Media Centre FAO

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