Category: Agriculture

Christmas tree shopping is harder than ever, thanks to climate change and demographics

Christmas tree shopping is harder than ever, thanks to climate change and demographics

By James Robert Farmer

If you’re shopping for a live Christmas tree this year, you may have to search harder than in the past. Over the last five years Christmas tree shortages have been reported in many parts of the U.S.

One factor is that growers sold off land and planted fewer trees during and after the 2008 recession. In the lifespan of Christmas trees, the decade from 2008 to the present is roughly a single generation of plantings. However, in my research on the human dimensions of farming and food systems, I also see other factors at play.

Christmas trees take 6 to 12 years to mature, and consumer preferences often change more quickly than farmers can adjust. Climate change is altering temperature and rainfall patterns, which severely affects growers’ ability to produce high-quality trees and the varieties that customers seek. And like the overall U.S. population, Christmas tree growers and shoppers are aging.

Collectively, these trends don’t bode well for Christmas tree lovers, the growers or the industry. However, there are opportunities for younger farmers to enter this market, either full- or part-time. If new and beginning growers live in an area with appropriate environmental conditions, Christmas trees are a high-quality complementary crop that farmers can use to diversify their operations and provide off-season income.

Workers deliver the 2018 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree to the U.S. Capitol Building, Nov. 26, 2018, from Willamette National Forest in Oregon. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Evolving consumer preferences

As of 2017, there were about 15,000 Christmas tree farms across the U.S. Most are around 23 acres in size, and nearly half of them gross less than US$25,000 annually. A great number of Christmas tree ventures are part of larger farm operations, and many growers hold off-the-farm jobs.

Our team recently sent a survey to 1,500 randomly selected Indiana residents to see how consumer behavior could affect the state’s tree farmers. Christmas tree shoppers told us that they predominantly seek short-needle trees, such as firs and spruces (38%), followed by medium-needle varieties like Scotch pines (24%).

Over 42% of respondents purchased their tree from a Christmas tree farm, while nearly 32% bought them from a tree lot or other small business, and approximately 20% got their tree from large chain or retail stores such as Home Depot or Lowes. A national consumer survey conducted by the National Christmas Tree Association found that shoppers equally purchased trees from Christmas tree farms (28%) and large chain retailers (28%), followed closely by retail lots (23%).

According to the association’s data, from 2004-2017 the number of real Christmas trees sold stayed relatively steady, while the number of artificial trees sold more than doubled. Real tree growers have lost market share to increasingly popular artificial trees, and may have trouble seriously competing for the foreseeable future, due to climate change and an aging population.

Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Oregon harvests trees by helicopter.

Weather woes

Climate change is directly and indirectly affecting Christmas tree growers across the U.S. Droughts in 2012 and 2014 and spring floods in 2019 have taken a toll on plantings, particularly young saplings. A farmer in southern Indiana recently told me that 2019 was the wettest spring and the driest summer and fall he could recall over the past 29 years.

These extreme conditions decrease sapling success rate, which contribute to tree shortages when the planted stock would have matured for harvesting. In addition, higher average summer and winter temperatures are increasing tree mortality by worsening disease and pest pressures, making trees less resilient.

In a 2018 survey that our program distributed to 95 Indiana Christmas tree growers, 60% of respondents said that environmental conditions were challenging their operations. Among the growers, over 70% highlighted droughts as a major challenge. More than 50% of respondents reported having problems with disease, insect pressure, and heat waves. About 30% indicated that consumers were searching for trees that were difficult or impossible for them to grow, such as Fraser firs, which are native to higher-elevation areas of the southern Appalachian mountains.

Christmas tree production is concentrated in cooler regions of the U.S. USDA/NASS

Aging farmers and shoppers

U.S. farmers are getting older, and Christmas tree growers are no exception. Across the farming industry, the average farmer’s age rose from 56.3 in 2012 to 57.5 in 2017.

In our survey of Indiana Christmas tree growers, we found that their average age was 64 and that 62% of farm operations did not have a transition plan in place. Additionally, 28% of growers intended to stop planting trees in the next five years. These results suggest that many new Christmas tree farmers will need to enter the business just to maintain current production levels.

Buyers are also aging. In our consumer survey, shoppers buying either real or artificial trees were in their mid-50s on average, while those who did not purchase trees were 64 on average. Written comments suggested that people were less likely to put up a tree when fewer people, particularly children, were in the house and the work fell to one or two individuals.

Planting for the future

For Christmas tree farms to survive, shoppers will need to be more flexible. They may have to settle for a Scotch pine instead of a Fraser fir, or for buying a harvested tree rather than cutting their own. This is particularly true for buyers who wait until late in the season or want a tree variety that cannot be grown in their local environment.

Who will grow the next generation of trees? The good news is that for potential growers, competition is sparse and demand is stable. Aspiring Christmas tree farmers should consider working with aging local growers who are seeking to slow down or transition out of the industry. Farmers in other sectors, such as fruit and vegetable producers selling locally, might consider Christmas trees as a way to bolster off-season income.

The allure of a fresh-cut tree is unlikely to fade, so Christmas tree farming could be a gratifying venture for growers who are patient enough to plant now for customers in 2027.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Cover photo by Josh Bean on Unsplash
Harnessing the potential of Zambia’s informal food sector

Harnessing the potential of Zambia’s informal food sector

By Mangiza Chirwa and Chenai Mukumba

Like many developing countries, Zambia’s informal food market is growing, driven largely by rapid urbanisation. Selling a variety of products at relatively low prices, informal food vendors offer access to healthy, nutritious and affordable food. With low-income households purchasing more than 90% of their food in informal outlets, they play a crucial role in feeding Zambia’s urban poor.

The government’s approach

But given the nature of informal markets, managing them has been a complex task for the government. Despite providing food security for the growing urban population, the authorities regard informal markets as unhygienic food sources that contribute to health and safety problems and offer low-nutritional food.

In early 2018, the government attributed Zambia’s cholera epidemic to street vending and poor sanitation in marketplaces, razing makeshift stalls and introducing more stringent laws. These have since been relaxed and street vendors are back on two streets in the capital’s central business district.

Although the government acknowledges the importance of the sector, urban food planning and policy discussions take little account of informal markets. The new report, Informal food markets in Zambia, shows that where they do consider them, there is a strong bias towards formalisation.

The country’s main national planning documents discuss the importance of broad-based economic growth, of ensuring that economic growth benefits all and of accelerating development efforts while leaving no one behind. But they do not mention the informal sector or how to integrate it into the economy.

The Ministry of Agriculture, the Citizens’ Economic Empowerment Commission and the National Pensions Scheme Authority should all respond to the needs of informal sector players. But instead they target formalised groups such as co-operatives, overlooking the challenges faced by informal vendors such as low education levels and limited access to social security services.

Ultimately, the government’s approach to engaging with the informal sector is attempting to eradicate it through formalisation.

Taking a different view

But formalisation is neither easy nor straightforward. On the contrary, it is something that needs to be done gradually over time.

In the meantime, there are several opportunities for improving the daily life of those who work in, and benefit from, the informal food market. These include upgrading infrastructure, simplifying market levies, increasing access to capital and credit, supporting self-help savings groups and promoting value addition.

And rather than view such opportunities as an expense to improve the lives of a few vendors, the authorities should consider them investments that benefit the millions of people who rely on informal vendors for their food.

Giving the sector a voice

The Sustainable Diets for All programme (SD4ALL) works with local partners in Zambia advocating the inclusion of the informal sector in broader policy discussions. We make change happen in two ways: from the top via policy change and from the bottom by working with people at the grassroots.

SD4ALL partner CUTS (Consumer Unity & Trust Society) International informed high-level policy dialogue in the Zambian parliament on a new food safety bill, strengthening the proposed text so it clearly outlined how the government would engage informal markets. CUTS also works with local authorities to promote sustainable diets in Lusaka, formulating a food policy that acknowledges the informal food market’s role in the urban food system.

At the grassroots level, SD4ALL embraces a citizen agency perspective that challenges the common pattern of expert-driven policies and interventions. Our partners Alliance for Zambian Informal Economy Associations (AZIEA) and CUTS work directly with market actors in Zambia’s two largest cities to better understand their priorities and dispel assumptions associated with the informal sector.

In Kitwe, AZIEA has created a formal relationship between farmers, transporters, traders and the city council to address poor hygiene, safe chemical application and foodstuff pricing issues. In Lusaka, CUTS has brokered a more direct dialogue between the city council and informal food sector actors, enabling local traders to talk about the challenges they face and offer solutions for improvement.

Working with Lusaka City Council, CUTS also trains food vendors in basic nutrition and the importance of diversified diets so they can convey these messages to their peers and customers. These actions complement policy advocacy and help create voices that can demand change beyond the life of the SD4ALL programme.

Towards a new relationship

To date, conversations have tended to focus on policing and clamping down on the informal food economies, mostly ignoring the state’s roles and responsibilities in providing public services that ensure and maintain food safety.

It is time for city authorities to reassess their approach of sidelining the informal sector and focus instead on harnessing the potential that lies within. Finding ways to integrate the informal market into urban policy planning will help Zambia promote ‘zero hunger’ and also seek to ensure that all income groups can eat nutritious food.

This article was originally posted on IIED blogs and has been reposted under Creative Commons licensing.
Cover photo/Selling food by the raod in Zambia/ Wikimedia Commons
French wines show hot dry years are now normal

French wines show hot dry years are now normal

By Tim Radford

LONDON, 6 September, 2019 − French wines tell a remarkable story: climate scientists and historians, with a new wine list to savour, have carefully reconstructed the harvest dates for Burgundy – one of the most important wine regions of France – to highlight the dramatic change in global climate.

Grapes in Burgundy are now picked 13 days earlier than the average for the last 664 years. And the advance in harvest dates has been dramatic: almost all since 1988.

The finding is based on painstaking study of data going back to 1354. From medieval times Burgundian growers and civic authorities had an unusual communal arrangement: they each year collectively considered the growing conditions and imposed a date before which no grapes might be picked.

And scientists from France, Germany and Switzerland report in the journal Climate of the Past that they worked through all surviving records to provide an accurate record of the harvest date around the city of Beaune.

“The transition to a rapid global warming after 1988 stands out very clearly. We hope people start to realistically consider the climate situation in which the planet is at present”

Since grapes are highly sensitive to temperature and rainfall, and the quality and reputation of Burgundy has been well-established for centuries, the researchers are confident that the data confirm a dramatic warming trend.

Even in a much cooler past, exceptionally early harvests were not unknown. The researchers counted 33 altogether, and 21 of these happened between 1393 and 1719, and five between 1720 and 2002. In the 16 years since 2003, there have been eight outstandingly warm spring-summer seasons, and five of those have happened in the last eight years.

“In sum, the 664-year-long Beaune grape harvest date series demonstrates that outstanding hot and dry years in the past were outliers, while they have become the norm since transition to rapid warming in 1988,” they write.

Historical reconstructions are not easy: data had been assembled before, but these records turned out to be riddled with copying, typing and printing errors. There were administrative changes (after 1906, city authorities in the Burgundian capital of Dijon ceased to set or record a harvest date).

Narrative verified

There were accounts kept by the dukes of Burgundy, and records of payments for grapevine labourers maintained by church authorities in Beaune, evidence of purchases of food for the harvesters, and records of sales to the King of France.

But those six centuries were also marked by the Little Ice Age, the Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant states from 1618 to 1648, several epidemics of plague, and the arrival of the vineyard-destroying infection phylloxera.

So the researchers had to verify their proxy history of regional climate from tree-ring data, and from vineyard records kept in Switzerland, as well as temperature records from Paris.

The wine industry is vulnerable to climate change: researchers noted three years ago that harvests in Burgundy and in Vaud in Switzerland were up to two weeks earlier and that climate change had begun to warm southern England’s chalky soils to the a degree that made them yield sparkling wines to match qualities pursued in the Champagne region of France.

Inescapable conclusion

But the same soaring temperatures that for the moment have helped the grower have begun to impose costs on the grape pickers, who become less productive as the mercury rises.

So the confirmation that harvests are earlier is not in itself news. The data from Beaune and Dijon are best seen as another example of painstaking phenological research. Phenology is the science of when insects hatch, trees bud and birds nest, and in the Burgundian series climate scientists now have a continuous record stretching back 664 years. The story told by the series is unequivocal.

“The transition to a rapid global warming after 1988 stands out very clearly,” said Christian Pfister of the University of Bern in Switzerland, one of the authors.

“The exceptional character of the last 30 years becomes apparent to everybody. We hope people start to realistically consider the climate situation in which the planet is at present.”

This article originally appeared on The Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash.
Hawaii turns to traditional aquaculture to boost food security in the face of climate change

Hawaii turns to traditional aquaculture to boost food security in the face of climate change

By Joe Gasowski  

The small island archipelago of Hawaii, today imports over 85% of its food and in 2012 the Hawaii State House’s self-sufficiency bill, said that the islands were “dangerously dependent” on food imports. In fact, the most geographically isolated State in the U.S. only has domestic supplies of fresh produce to last ten days. This represents a substantial threat to the islands’ resilience to economic and environmental shocks and stresses, such as those posed by climate change. Today, in an effort to strengthen food security, Hawaiians are turning to traditional knowledge to restore the islands’ fishponds, providing a sustainable source of protein for Islanders and also restoring and protecting marine ecosystems.

Hawaii was not always so reliant on imports to sustain its people. In fact, in the early 1900s, it would even export large quantities of their food production abroad. Hawaii’s rich tradition of aquaculture dates back over 800 years and at one time the islands’ 488 fishponds were able to feed over a million Hawaiians. However, the islands were flooded with cheap US food imports in the later part of the 20th century, making key crops cheaper to import than to grow locally.

By 2010, Hawaii was importing over 50% of its seafood and around 85% of all its food. The focus of the economy had shifted to tourism, bringing with it considerable coastal development and urbanisation. The islands fishponds were left to decay. Today, just thirteen fishponds have been restored to some level and six are in active use. However, climate change, coastal erosion and the degradation of marine ecosystems have helped to spark a resurgence in interest in restoring the fishponds.

Building resilience through fishpond restoration

Climate change is driving significant changes to Hawaii’s ecosystems. Increasing water temperatures, saline intrusion in coastal areas and more erosion from storms and sea-level rise, are putting a strain on the marine environment and damaging other forms of agriculture. With increased incidence of drought and the degradation of the islands’ soils, aquaculture is becoming increasingly important as a source of food production.

The mounting threats to the Islands’ resilience caught the attention of local activists, such as Walter Ritte who have since then battled hard to rebuild the network of fishponds. In 2012 they helped pass state legislation to help speed up the legal processes that facilitate the restoration of fishponds.

Walter and other researchers on the islands, realised that the methods that to create the fishponds had many benefits for strengthening ecosystems. The process for creating a fishpond starts high in the mountains, where rivers flow through nutrient-rich forests. As the waters reach the lowlands, islanders plant fields of the root vegetable taro along the river’s path, and as the waters spread across the land they collect nutrients in mud and algae. The wider the rivers spread, and the slower the water moves, the more silt and mud is transferred to the coast, which is then used to combat erosion.

Image: Tarot is planted in wide fields adding nutrients to the waters that flow through them.

The fishponds themselves are stone circles built into the sea with specially designed mākāhā (gates) that allow fish to come in at high tide. The nutrient-rich river waters flow into these ponds, attracting small fish, which in turn attract larger fish to predate on them. Eventually, when the fish are ready to spawn, they leave the ponds, through the mākāhā at high tide. Local fishermen then capture the fish that they need, letting a proportion go back to the ocean to sustain stocks.

Image: The wall and gate of a fishpond under restoration in Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. Credit: National Park Service.

IOngoing climate challenges

Today though, the sustainability of the fishponds faces new threats from climate change. Reduced rainfall and increased temperatures have reduced the amount of fresh water on the islands, reducing river flow rates. At the same time, increased temperatures are making it harder to grow native plants including taro and warmer waters are disrupting delicate marine ecosystems.

Scientists from the University of Hawaii have been closely working with local communities to monitor in the He’eia fishpond on Oʻahu Island. Between 2004 and 2016, they are observing the consequences of climate change and the El Niño effect on the ecosystems around the fishponds. In 2009 there were two incidents that led to substantial numbers of fish dying in the ponds at He’eia; one in May and on in October. The researchers found that on both occasions, the mortality rates were the highest when there had been a drop in wind velocity and the surface water temperatures increased 2-3˚C higher than the baseline. This caused the hypoxia in the ponds, suffocating the fish. The unprecedented events show the significance of El Niño on Hawaii’s marine ecosystems. This type of El Niño impacting Hawaii has become 3 times more frequent in the last 30 years.

As climate change and its impacts are expected to worsen over the coming decades, researchers and local communities have been devising ways to adapt Hawaii’s aquaculture. Together they have come up with three ideas to lower the death rates of these fish:

  1. Moving the net pens closer to the mākāhā (gates) where the fish will be in higher water flows. The other gates can be used as a way of decreasing temperature in the fishponds and also to increase the aeration of these ponds and keep them breathing. 
  2. Install artificial aeration systems to oxygenate fishponds at times of highest risk (like during El Nino events).
  3. Changing the time of the fish harvest to be at the start of the heatwaves, reducing the potential for losses and allowing fish to escape into cooler oceans.

Other pressures such as pollution from human settlements are also being considered. On the island of Molokai, for instance, they are using swales to help filter polluted water and use wastewater to help irrigate crops.

Through these efforts, Hawaii’s fishponds are gradually being brought back to life, with 19 fishponds either in operation or being actively restored. The methods used by islanders have the potential to build the resilience of ecosystems in the face of considerable climate threats, as well as increase the food security of the isolated island archipelago.

Cover photo of Fishpond near He`eia of Oahu, Hawaii. Credit: State of Hawaii.
India is waking up and smelling the coffee when it comes to climate change

India is waking up and smelling the coffee when it comes to climate change

By Devika Singh

Coffee has been fuelling our energy levels, productivity and the global economy for over 500 years now. Since the 16th century, coffee has been one of the most valuable agricultural commodities traded internationally, with tropical and developing countries being the largest producers and suppliers to consumers in temperate countries. While the coffee industry is growing at a high compound annual growth rate of 5.5%, the economy of the industry is volatile and highly sensitive to weather in the producing countries.

How do you value your cup of Joe?

The global coffee industry is valued at around US$ 42.5 billion, however, the economic impact of the industry is much higher; in the US alone it was valued at US$ 225.2 billion in 2015. As of 2006, the number of people involved in the coffee supply chain from cultivation and management to the final product is around 500 million. Around 25 million small-scale family farmers across the coffee producing countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia contribute 80% of the world’s coffee; Brazil and Vietnam are the two largest coffee-producing countries in the world, followed by other Latin American and African countries, with India being the 7th largest coffee producer in the world.

The global coffee market is complex and highly interconnected, with coffee supply (imports and exports) and pricing being regulated by the International Coffee Agreements. The Agreements helped promote coffee consumption and demand while strengthening the economy of coffee-producing nations in Latin America and Africa.

However, with a lack of consensus in negotiations by the International Coffee Organisation (ICO), dismantling of pricing regulations, market fluctuations and exploitation by roasters and retailers in the early 1990s, coffee prices fell to their lowest levels by 2001 (reaching less than a third of their 1960 levels). This fall in pricing was also influenced by a 1400% increase in Vietnam’s coffee production in the 1990s, making it the largest Robusta producer in the world. The fall in prices in 2001 impacted over 25 million households across Latin America, Asia and Africa, the majority of whom were small-scale farmers.

A climate-sensitive crop

Globally, as of 2015, for every pound of coffee sold (retail), the farmer received only 0.7 cents, while the distributor received 159 cents. With falling coffee prices, increasing costs of production (including labour wages), changing climatic patterns, and the low profitability for producers, coffee production, especially for the small farmers is becoming increasingly unprofitable. Mr Madhu Bopanna, a coffee plantation consultant in Kodagu, India, has revealed that the dependence on coffee as a source of livelihood is slowly being replaced due to multiple instabilities: reduced prices in the global market for coffee due to an increase in global coffee production; climate variability; an increase in diseases and pests; reduced soil moisture levels and reduced water availability. In Kodagu, which produces more than 50% of India’s coffee, coffee is slowly becoming the secondary source of income, while pepper and timber have taken centre-stage.

A recent study has found that 60% of all wild coffee species are facing extinction, making the plant group one of the most threatened in the world. This is of significance to coffee cultivation as Arabica and Robusta, the two main coffee species forming 100% of the coffee market, have very low levels of domestication, i.e., their variance from the wild species is minimal. Impacts based on climate change projections, especially drought and changing rainfall patterns, combined with other anthropogenic factors causing environmental degradation, contribute to the high level of extinction risk, threatening agricultural production.

Wild coffee species are largely forest-dwelling and have narrow climatic envelopes (climatic envelope refers to the climate within which the species currently lives, i.e., the specific rainfall and temperature patterns). They have low adaptive capacity to changing environmental factors.

With the majority of coffee plantations belonging to smallholders, the sensitivity of ecological balance, plantation management, wealth distribution and the maintenance of rural lifestyles becomes increasingly difficult. Variations in temperatures up to ±5°C result in changes in humidity, dry periods, variations in rainfall, wind shears, advection, wind stress, and cloud cover all leading to the depression of coffee yield and loss of quality. The frequency of droughts in coffee-growing areas has increased globally and is considered to be one of the highest environmental stressors in coffee production. Marginal areas without irrigation may experience reductions in yield of up to 80% during dry years.

Robusta plantation in Somwarpet taluk, Kodagu district, Karnataka. Photo taken by the author.

A history of coffee production in India

Coffee has been produced in India for over 3 centuries, traditionally in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, with Karnataka accounting for more than 70% of the country’s coffee production. The coffee sector in India has over 300,000 holdings (2016-17) with around 659,865 people forming the labour pool (based on the average number of casual and permanent labour employed). Within Karnataka, the Kodagu district (Coorg) is the largest coffee-producing district, with more than a 50% share of total coffee produced.

The ecology of the coffee agroforestry systems of Coorg has traditionally provided climate resilience to the hill communities, economic sustenance (making it one of the wealthiest districts of India), as well as water flow to the Cauvery river. The fluctuating rainfall patterns with their high impact on coffee production have resulted in a move towards irrigation, which has replaced the traditional rain-fed agroforestry ecosystem in order to sustain coffee production and ensure a sustained income to coffee farmers.

Mixed cropping visible in the coffee agroforestry system of Kodagu. Photo taken by the author.

Reports from the Coffee Board of India (CBI) indicate a rainfall deficit of 19% between 2015-2016, resulting in production deficits of up to 25%. The length of the rainy season has seen a decrease of 14 days over the last 35 years, along with strong fluctuations in annual rainfall. While this has directly impacted coffee production and its output, it has also caused a 31% deficit in the Krishna Raja Sagara dam reservoir (built across the Cauvery river), downstream of Kodagu. In 2019 again, the district witnessed severe drought in May followed by spells of intense rainfall in July and August leading to destructive flooding. The impacts of the drought and flood on coffee plantations in 2019 are yet to be estimated.

Climate impacts on coffee productivity

According to Christian Bunn’s Modeling the climate change impacts on global coffee production, the total area under coffee production is expected to double from 2000 levels by 2050. At the same time, total production is projected to fall by at least 20% in all GCM scenarios. Between 1977 and 1997, the district of Kodagu lost up to 30% of its forest cover and doubled its area under coffee cultivation. The productivity of coffee in Kodagu fell from 3,596 kg/ha. in 2014-15 (for Arabica and Robusta) to 1,174 kg/ha. in 2016-2017, while the area under coffee production in Kodagu increased from 106,527 ha. in 2015-16 to 107,089 ha. in 2016-17.

Burning of an Arabica plant affected with White Stem Borer in Kodagu. Photo taken by the author.

The declining productivity has been attributed to climatic variations, an increase in diseases and pests such as the white stem borer which destroys Arabica crops, lower returns on investments (due to current price trends in the global coffee market) and the shift from traditional agroforestry plantations to irrigation systems.

Looking towards adaptation options

Most large planters have started taking definitive steps to reduce their vulnerability to unstable rainfall patterns by establishing irrigation systems and rainwater harvesting, and using technology. For instance, Mr Bopanna has begun the use of Hydrogel, a gel-based humectant that can retain up to 300 times its original size in water. This gel is mixed into the soil base of every individual coffee plant to make up for the loss in soil moisture due to rising temperatures and changing rainfall trends.

Water storage ponds-cum-fishing ponds within a plantation in Kodagu. Large planters are increasingly creating these ponds to combat periods of rainfall deficit. Photo taken by the author.

While large plantation owners can invest in individual adaptive systems, small planters are unable to afford these technologies and are therefore unable to cope with the impacts of climate variability. They are dependent on the policies and schemes of the Coffee Board. The Coffee Board of India (CBI) has taken numerous steps to address planters’ concerns and climate change challenges. However, a majority of its plans are centred around providing development support, subsidies, insurance and extension services.

Policy actions focused on adaptation are required to restore the ecological balance of the coffee agroforestry system and build its resilience to climate change. Investing in local dialogue and capacity building with planters across the state and aggregating the wealth of experience and data collected by each planter are necessary first steps towards developing an adaptation strategy for the sensitive region and its economy.

Cover photo was taken by the author.

Not just dirt: Why soil health is vital to build climate resilience

Not just dirt: Why soil health is vital to build climate resilience

By Lydia Messling

The IPCC’s recent report on climate change and land, highlighted the pressing need for changes to be made to land management practice. Land degradation and climate change threaten to reduce food production and lead to a 25% food production deficit by mid-century. Globally, soil biodiversity has been estimated to annually contribute between US$ 1.5 and 13 trillion to the value of ecosystems services. Despite this, soil biodiversity is often overlooked in policy. This neglect poses a serious threat to food security.

Producing sufficient food to feed a growing population, relies upon being able to grow healthy crops that survive until harvest season after season. To a large extent, this depends on the health of the thin 30-40cm layer of topsoil that plants grow in. Measuring the soil organic carbon (SOC) of this soil provides an indicator of the soil’s health. When soils reach low levels SOC they can tip past the point where they have any hope of being restored, resulting in devastating irreversible degradation of the land. Poor land management practice, soil erosion, and other land degradation processes can reduce soil health. Climate change and its impacts act as an additional stress factor.

Just as poorly managed soils can exacerbate climate change and reduce food security, healthy soils can have the opposite effect. Sequestering carbon in the soil can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as improving the soil’s resilience to extreme weather events and also increase crop yields.

How does climate change affect soil health and what can be done?

Through changes in average temperatures, more frequent and intense extreme events, and other factors, climate change can affect soil structure, stability, topsoil water holding capacity, nutrient availability and erosion. The IPCC’s report on land lists many interconnected processes that affect degradation processes, but climate change also directly effects salinization, and permafrost thawing, waterlogging of dry ecosystems and drying of ecosystems, and a broad group of biologically mediated processes like woody encroachment, biological invasions, pest outbreaks, together with biological soil crust destruction and increased burning.

For example, prolonged dry seasons can dry out the soil, causing the organisms in the soil to die and for nutrients to be lost. Similarly, prolonged wet seasons can inundate the soil and wash away the nutrients needed for plant growth, as well as eroding and removing the soil. One of the ways that soil can be made more resilient to climate change is by increasing the soil’s organic matter.

What are soil organic carbon (SOC) and soil organic matter (SOM)?

Soil organic matter (SOM) is divided into ‘living’ and ‘dead’ components, such as roots and microorganisms and decaying plants and animals. SOM contains all sorts of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, potassium, calcium and magnesium, and also determines how much water the soil can contain – all important elements for plant growth. SOM is quite hard to measure though, so measurements are taken of Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) instead. About 58% of the mass of organic matter exists as carbon (depending on geography), so the percentage of SOM can be calculated from the SOC measurement. Therefore, a decrease in SOC means a decrease in SOM.

Why is SOM important?

Besides providing crucial plant nutrition, SOM provides soil with its structure. This structure is the reason healthy soil doesn’t just get blown away in the wind, and how plants can spread their roots to remain stable. Soil structure is also important for being able to hold moisture whilst not waterlogging plants and retain nutrients, preventing them from being washed away completely in heavy rains. Land that has been overworked and lost much of its SOM content will have poor soil structure. Farmers may use chemicals to replace the nutrients that have been lost from a lack of SOM but will find it difficult to provide the soil structure that is needed for plants to grow and be resilient to climate impacts.

How can SOM be lost, and how can it be replaced?

Agriculturalists have already been adopting different methods to increase SOM content and to improve soil health, as loss of SOM is also related to intensive farming practices. As such, many methods exist for increasing SOM in soils, many of which are easy to deploy but are yet to see the rapid adoption. These include reducing how often soil is tilled, erosion control measures, soil mulching, maintaining ground cover, rotating crops, using different crop breeds, careful timing of grazing, and diversifying plants by including trees and shrubs amongst the crops.

All of these measures seek to increase and preserve the amount of SOM in the soils. As such, they improve fertility rates, make the soil more resilient to weather events, and secure the food supply by increasing the likelihood of a good harvest year after year. Soils also have the potential to be an important carbon sink. The 4 per 1000 initiative, launched at the Paris COP in 2015, champions increasing SOC content as a climate mitigation measure. A theoretical increase of just 0.4% of the world’s SOC would be greater than the increase in atmospheric CO2 experienced in 2015.

Climate change putting extra pressure on fish stock

Climate change putting extra pressure on fish stock

By Anna Haworth

Fisheries provide food and support livelihoods across the world. It is estimated that over 56 million people are employed by or subsisting on fisheries. However, they are also under extreme pressure, with many stocks overfished and poorly managed. Climate change, through warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and habitat loss, is an additional stress to fish populations, which may be pushed to the point of collapse.

Research published earlier this year in the journal Science suggests that climate change is already beginning to disrupt the complex, interconnected systems that underpin this major source of food and employment. The study looked at historical abundance data for 124 species in 38 regions, which represents roughly one-third of the reported global catch. The researchers compared this data to records of ocean temperature and found that 8% of populations were significantly negatively impacted by warming, while 4% saw positive impacts. Overall, though, the losses outweigh the gains.

“We were surprised how strongly fish populations around the world have already been affected by warming,” said Dr Chris Free, a University of California, Santa Barbara scientist who led the research, “and that, among the populations we studied, the climate ‘losers’ outweigh the climate ‘winners.’”

Cod, herring and various shellfish species are among the creatures already suffering due to climate change. The decline has been even most pronounced in key fishing regions such as the East China Sea, Sea of Japan, North Sea, Iberian Coastal and Celtic-Biscay Shelf, where climate-induced losses have been as high as 35% over the last 80 years. On the other hand, the greatest gains occurred in the Labrador-Newfoundland region, Baltic Sea, Indian Ocean and Northeastern United States.

These findings highlight the importance of accounting for the effects of climate change in fisheries management. In practical terms, this means coming up with “new tools for assessing the size of fish populations, new strategies for setting catch limits that consider changing productivity and new agreements for sharing catch between winning and losing regions” Dr Free explained.

The research team also stressed that ocean warming is just one of many processes affecting marine life and the industries that rely on it. Ocean acidification, falling oxygen levels and habitat loss will also impact marine life. More research is necessary to fully understand how climate change will affect fish populations and the livelihoods of people that depend on them.

The full Science article is available here

Cover photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash.
Impact of climate change on bees and food production

Impact of climate change on bees and food production

By Sophie Turner

Three out of four crops across the globe, which produce fruits or seeds for human consumption, depend on pollinators. As one of the most important pollinators in the world, bees are crucial for food production, human livelihoods and biodiversity. Unfortunately, bees and other pollinators are declining in abundance in many parts of the world with recent figures suggesting by as much as 30 per cent per year. If this trend continues, the cost of our fruit and vegetables could significantly increase, nutritious crops will be substituted increasingly by staple crops like rice, corn, and potatoes, resulting in an imbalanced diet, and the quantity of food in the world that relies on pollination by insects would diminish.

Bees provide the majority of biotic pollination and are at risk from a multitude of factors; changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices, monocropping (growing a single crop year after year on the same land), and the use of pesticides have all contributed to large-scale losses, fragmentation and degradation of bee habitats. Pests and diseases are also a threat to bee colonies, some of which have occurred as a result of transporting bees long distances. Furthermore, higher temperatures, shifting seasons and extreme weather events are also causing problems for bees.

Their habitat range is shrinking.

As global temperatures rise, North American and European honeybee ranges are getting smaller. In their most southern habitats, bees are dying from high heat and in their most northern habitats, they are remaining mostly static, so their range is shrinking.

A shift in the seasons may cause bees to mistime their spring emergence.

Both bees and plants hone in on specific weather cues, like snow melt or air temperature, to let them know when spring has sprung. If weather patterns and temperatures shift beyond the norm, plants and bees may become out of sync, resulting in bees emerging long after the plants are ready to be pollinated. 

They are at greater risk of disease.

Bees are extremely susceptible to certain mites and gut parasites, and these parasites have been steadily increasing due to warming weather conditions. Higher temperatures and more frequent heat waves as a result of climate change, are likely to exacerbate these problems in the future, which could cause Colony Collapse and wipe out entire hives.

Globally, pollination has an estimated market value of up to $577 billion USD annually which represents about 10 percent of the global crop market. In the UK, it is estimated that insects contribute over £650 million per annum to the economy through the pollination of many commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries. Some bee species have already been lost from the UK and a lack of pollinating insects points to an increased need for hand-pollination (or innovative technology).

According to a University of Reading study, the labour costs involved in hand-pollinating UK crops without bees would cost over £1.8bn a year. This potential increase in the cost of food production would mean an increase in food prices. Given that affordable food is already an issue for many people living in poverty, this could only serve to exacerbate an already significant barrier to nutritious and sufficient diets.

Thankfully, there are measures that can be taken to reverse the decline of bees and other pollinators. Whether you are a land manager, a gardener, window-box owner or business, some simple actions include:

  • Growing more flowers, shrubs and trees that provide nectar and pollen as food for bees and other pollinators throughout the year.
  • Planting herbs and vegetables – lavender, basil, mint and tomatoes provide food for bees as well as for humans.
  • Providing water for bees to take back to the hive.
  • Avoiding disturbing or destroying nesting or hibernating insects, in places like grass margins, bare soil, hedgerows, trees, dead wood or walls.
  • Thinking carefully about the use of pesticides, especially where pollinators are active or nesting or where plants are in flower. Many people choose to avoid chemicals and adopt methods like physically removing pests or using barriers to deter them.
  • Buying locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables to support beekeepers in your area.

Farmers can also help maintain pollinator abundance, diversity and health by leaving field corners uncultivated to create a habitat for pollinators, and applying to Defra for the Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package to help address the declines in our wild insect pollinators.

It is easy to take for granted the plants, fruit and vegetables in our fields and gardens but they could not flourish without bees and other pollinating insects carrying pollen from one flower to another. If these pollinators continue to decline, the health of our food industry would be damaged, and some of the food that is essential for a healthy diet would become a lot harder to grow, and therefore more expensive. Taking action to help these insects is therefore key to global food security and nutrition.

Cover photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash.
Danone’s dairy-farming ‘Margarita Project’ serves up a cocktail of adaptation actions

Danone’s dairy-farming ‘Margarita Project’ serves up a cocktail of adaptation actions

Mexican dairy farmers are benefiting from the ‘Margarita’ project which aims to sustain livelihoods of small-scale milk producers in the face of climate change. The project, from the international food company Danone, is designed to encourage sustainable milk-sourcing strategy in the Jalisco province. In support of the project, and with funding from PROADAPT, Acclimatise delivered a supply chain climate risk assessment that identified key climate risks and opportunities for farmers to build their resilience.

The assessment indicated that the dairy industry faces several climate risks that threaten production. One of the most significant risks is the inability of farmers to produce enough fodder (such as hay, grass and silage). If fodder yields do not cover the livestock’s nutritional needs, farmers have to purchase from suppliers, which can often be prohibitively expensive, especially if precipitated by and extreme weather event such as a drought.

Dairy cattle are also extremely vulnerable to hot temperatures because of their high metabolic rate and poor water retention, which impact their reproductive performance. High temperatures combined with increased soil moisture can also create prime conditions for the spread of pathogens and parasites.

The report also identified adaptation options that could help farmers build resilience. Importantly the assessment found that the cost-effectiveness of adaptation options was closely linked to farm size. Farms with at least 40-50 productive cows are able to introduce certain resilience measures more quickly than farms with smaller herds. For farmers ‘below the thresholds’ financial, behavioural, institutional and knowledge interventions with low-capital investment need to be introduced progressively. 

Adaptation measures identified in the report include:

  • Tree planting which drives water infiltration and preservation and protects cattle from heat stress and solar radiation whilst capturing and storing C02;
  • Installation of biodigesters to provide manure and slurry management and treatment techniques to reduce GHG emissions, improve soil quality and moisture preservation and reduce chemical fertilizer costs and associated environmental impacts; and
  • Crop surveillance for early detection of infectious diseases.

The Margarita project has provided farmers with a full suite of services to increase dairy quality and productivity. Some indicators include increases in the number of cows per farm, overall yield increase, improved milk quality and increase price per litre. The project has achieved considerable success by supplying 12% of Danone’s milk procurement volumes and doubling the incomes of over 300 small-scale dairy farmers in Jalisco.

For more details about this project, read the full report here.

Cover photo by Michael Pujals on Unsplash.
Climate change adding to pressure on land threatening global food security finds landmark IPCC report

Climate change adding to pressure on land threatening global food security finds landmark IPCC report

By Will Bugler

Climate change is undermining human’s ability to provide enough food as pressures on soils mount. At the same time, poor land use practices are increasing global greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change and making adaptation and resilience efforts more difficult. This stark warning comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land, released yesterday.

The report, which is the most comprehensive study ever undertaken into the land-climate system, shows that better land management has the potential to save huge amounts of greenhouse-gas emissions. However, the growing demand for food will mean that most land must remain productive, and therefore it will not be possible to limit global warming to 2˚C, let alone 1.5˚C through land management alone.

The report found that climate change is contributing to land degradation through increased rates of erosion and desertification. “In a future with more intensive rainfall the risk of soil erosion on croplands increases,” said Kiyoto Tanabe, Co-Chair of the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories, “sustainable land management is a way to protect communities from the detrimental impacts of this soil erosion and landslides. However, there are limits to what can be done, so in other cases degradation might be irreversible,” he said.

The report provides some indications of the risks to land productivity from different levels of climate change. It finds that even at 1.5˚C of warming, there will be serious impacts on food and water security, making adaptation efforts essential. “New knowledge shows an increase in risks from dryland water scarcity, fire damage, permafrost degradation and food system instability, even for global warming of around 1.5°C,” said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I. “Very high risks related to permafrost degradation and food system instability are identified at 2°C of global warming,” she said.

The fact that many scientists believe 2˚C of warming is likely to be a best-case scenario, clearly indicates that adaptation efforts should consider the implications of climate change at 3˚C and 4˚C of warming.

The report indicates that climate change poses a direct threat to global efforts to improve nutrition and end hunger. It shows how climate change is affecting all four pillars of food security: availability (yield and production), access (prices and ability to obtain food), utilization (nutrition and cooking), and stability (disruptions to availability).

“Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines – especially in the tropics – increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions,” said Priyadarshi Shukla, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III. “We will see different effects in different countries, but there will be more drastic impacts on low-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said.

The report finds that to successfully feed the world population in the future, it is likely that dietary habits will need to change, shifting towards plan-based diets, and away from consumption of meats, especially beef, lamb and other ruminants.

The report also shows that there are ways to manage risks and reduce vulnerabilities in land and the food system, with positive results for communities’ resilience to extreme events. This can be the result of dietary changes or ensuring a variety of crops to prevent further land degradation and increase resilience to extreme or varying weather.

Download a copy of the report here.

Cover photo by James Baltz on Unsplash.