Climate Change Threatens Food Production

By Henrylito D. Tacio

1st October 2011- The constant typhoons and droughts the Philippines has been experiencing in recent years should serve as a wake-up call for Filipinos to regard climate change as serious matter.

“Climate change is upon us.  It’s here and it can only get worse.  We believe that climate change is going to be more intense.  The Philippines will be most vulnerable if the people are least prepared,” said Amelie Obusan, climate and energy campaigner of Greenpeace Philippines.

The World Bank lists the Philippines as one of the top 12 countries “at highest risk to climate change.”  Droughts, floods, storms, rising sea levels, and greater uncertainty in agriculture were the reasons cited why the country was among included in the top list.

Of the five main threats, “the Philippines leads the list of nations that is most in danger of facing frequent and more intense storms,” says Rita T. dela Cruz, of the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR).  

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report states that the changes in Southeast Asia between 2010 and 2099 are as follows: increase in temperature from 0.72 degrees Centigrade to 3.92 degrees Centigrade; change in precipitation from -2 percent to 12 percent; and global rise sea level from 18 centimeters to 59 centimeters.

For its part, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration has already warned the public of extreme weather condition characterized by significant increase in hot days and warm nights, extreme rainfall activity, and significant increase in annual mean temperature.

In the last decades, the number of typhoons that entered the Philippine area of responsibility has increased from 15 to 20 per year. 

Tropical storms Ondoy, Pepeng, and Pedring have given Filipinos some ideas of the worst things to come.  Once a strong typhoon unleashes its fury, millions of buildings and infrastructures are destroyed and hundreds of people are killed.

More importantly, food production is greatly affected.  “Despite the technological advances in the second half of the 20th century, agriculture remains to be one of the most vulnerable sectors to climate change,” notes Apple Jean C. Martin in a policy advocacy.

“Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change,” the policy report of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) agrees.  “Higher temperatures eventually reduce yields of desirable crops while encouraging weed and pest proliferation.  Changes in precipitation patterns increase the likelihood of short-run crop failures and long-run production declines.” 

According to the IFPRI report, populations in the developing world, which are already vulnerable and food insecure, are “likely to be the most seriously affected.” In 2005, nearly half of the economically active population in developing countries – 2.5 billion people – relied on agriculture for its livelihood.  Today, 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas!

In the Philippines, 30 years from now, the population would reach over 140 million.  “With decreasing land area devoted to agriculture, higher prices of agricultural inputs, lesser people engaging into agriculture and education in agriculture, and now, the advent of climate change, feeding the nation is a huge challenge,” writes Amavel A. Velasco in an article which appeared in BAR Digest. 

The country’s population, according to the Department of Agriculture, is predominantly rural (70 percent) and two-thirds of the population depend on farming for their livelihood.  In terms of employment, about one-half of the labor force is engaged in agricultural activities.  

Unfortunately, their work and other activities are being threatened with climate change.  “Between 1971 and 2000, mean annual, maximum, and minimum temperatures in the country have increased by 0.14 degrees Centigrade,” said a report released by the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD). 

About 5-7 percent decline in yield of major crops in the Philippines is attributed to climate change.  “The yield reduction is caused by heat stress, decrease in sink formation (number of spikelet per unit ground area), shortening of growing period, and increased maintenance for respiration,” said PCARRD, a line agency of the Department of Science and Technology.

Since 1980, the Philippines has been experiencing an increase in annual mean rainfall, and since 1990, an increase in the number of rainy days.  There was also an increase in inter-annual variability of onset of rainfall in the past decades.  “This erratic rainfall pattern has greatly affected the planting schedule and other activities of the farmers,” the PCARRD said.

Extreme events – heat waves, drought, and heavy rainfall – have become more frequent.  Between 1961 and 1998, there was an increase in hot days and warm nights.  There was increased occurrence of extreme rains causing flash floods, landslides, and inundation of low-lying areas.  Droughts normally associated with El Niño became more intense. 

“All these extreme events caused massive crop failures and damages to agricultural irrigation facilities and infrastructures,” the PCARRD said.  It singed out the 1997-98 El Niño event, which has brought considerable yield decline in rice and corn harvests. 

The World Bank considers agriculture and fisheries sector as a “significant source of national economic growth” and “has high potential for poverty reduction.” In a paper, ‘Policy Imperatives of Climate Change,’ author Josefina M. Latican reports that the aforementioned sector has contributed 15 percent to the gross domestic product in 2008.  That’s equivalent to P1.1 trillion in current prices.

“With the onset of climate change and its becoming more pronounced, expectations about the sector appear to be waning,” Latican notes.  “Prolonged dry spells and excessive flooding brought about by the phenomenon have adversely affected productivity such that effective measures to mitigate or forestall damage to crops, livestock and fishery resources have to be adopted immediately.”

Think globally, act locally, environmentalists urge. “Human survival and environmental preservation must always be in the forefront of our concerns,” Martin writes.  “Beyond statistics, predictions, and abundant yet unconsolidated researches, climate change efforts must translate into something that would directly help the people cope with the impacts of climate change.”

The sooner, the better.  “Science teaches us that if we act decisively and collectively, soon we can manage global change,” BAR Director Nicomedes P. Eleazar surmises.  “The sooner our act on this, the cheaper it will be for the country.” – ###