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Climate change: Complex challenges for agriculture

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11th-Jan-2019       
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Peter Lüthi :
The unusually hot summer of 2018 showed that climate change affects a central part of our lives: agriculture. The severe drought in Liechtenstein led to large losses in the hay harvest. In countries of the Global South, the consequences of climate change are already much more drastic. In Africa, for example, extreme weather conditions threaten food security for millions of people.
East Africa has encountered droughts at increasingly shorter intervals in recent years, most recently in 2005-6, 2009, 2011, 2014-15, and 2017. Apart from drought, the conditions for agriculture are also becoming increasingly difficult due to the gradual rise in temperature, salinization and changing rainy seasons.
Serious consequences include decreasing availability of food and increasing conflicts over water-both obstacles to development opportunities of the affected states and possible triggers for migration. Agriculture and the food system are not only victims but also causes of climate change. The term "food system" refers to the entire food cycle, from production to harvesting, storage, distribution, consumption, and disposal.
This cycle produces significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Paradoxically, modern industrial agriculture aims to intensify operations to compensate for the loss of production caused by climate change. However, using ever more fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers, and agrochemicals increases emissions of climate-damaging gases instead of reducing them. Industrialized agriculture causes additional problems as well, including large-scale deforestation, immense water consumption, soil compaction and erosion, chemical pollution of the environment, and biodiversity loss. This exacerbates the overexploitation of natural resources and increases climate change vulnerability. In the project "Food security in rural Ethiopia" by Biovision and Caritas Vorarlberg, the village communities of the Siraro district dig erosion control ditches.
"Industrial agriculture has reached a dead end-there is no option to continue as before," warns Hans Rudolf Herren, winner of the World Food Prize and longtime president of the Biovision Foundation. The renowned agronomist and entomologist urges global agriculture to embrace organic, multifunctional, healthy and sustainable practices that take agroecological principles into account, rather than striving for the highest possible yields.
This option is now also recognized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a response to the many challenges of climate change. Climate change is a complex problem involving various factors. This calls for holistic solutions. These include agroecology adapted to the local political, social, and natural conditions.
An important principle of agroecology is the promotion of diversity. The more diverse an ecosystem is, the more flexible it can react to changes, recover from disturbances, and adapt to new conditions. Diversified agroecosystems use synergies from mixed cultivation or agroforestry systems and rely on natural fertilizers from compost and manure.
Agroecology combines traditional and new knowledge. This includes locally adapted and robust plant varieties and animal breeds. Efficiency-enhancing measures, such as irrigation systems, are becoming increasingly important. At the societal level, fair trade conditions and market access for all producers are important, as is responsible governance. The latter is necessary to coordinate and issue appropriate political policies.
Save money for drought periods: Barite Jumba from Siraro learned how to raise and breed chickens in Biovision and Caritas Vorarlberg's project. With the income from her egg business, she buys surplus vegetables to sell at a profit on the market. A breakthrough for agroecology principles will require dialogue between all actors involved. Only then can the course of agriculture change towards a joint sustainable future. This is the aim of the Biovision Foundation's advocacy team. Together with an alliance of goal-oriented organizations and states, these agroecology advocates succeeded in establishing the demand for sustainable agriculture as part of the UN's 17 sustainability goals in New York in 2015.


(Peter Lüthi is in Communications at the Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, Zurich)

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