New Study Highlights Climate Change, Food Risk ‘Hot Spots’

June 01, 2012 - News Release

The world’s poorest societies may be better able to adapt to food supply threats posed by climate change than their slightly richer peers, says a new study by a University of Guelph professor.

Countries are most at risk in the early stages of development before the benefits of that development kick in, says Evan Fraser, a professor in Guelph’s Department of Geography and in the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds.

“It turns out that the very poor and the relatively wealthy are less vulnerable to the effects of drought than the group in the middle,” said Fraser, an expert in food production and its relation to social and economic conditions.

His research, published in the journals Food Security and Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, highlights areas at special risk of climate-induced crop failures, including southeast South America and northeast Mediterranean.

“We’re finding a real trade-off between adaptation and development,” he said.

“That’s not to say we should discourage development, but you can’t assume that by promoting it, you’re also helping people adapt to climate change.”

Fraser suggests this counterintuitive result may occur for two reasons. First, development assistance from other countries and NGOs often dries up once a country is no longer classed among the very poorest. Second, moving away from traditional farming practices is costly, and it takes time for new methods to start paying dividends.

For example, switching from pastoral farming to settled agriculture offers many benefits once new techniques like higher-yielding, drought-resistant crops and modern machinery are introduced.

But these practices require money, and it takes time for poor farmers to build up the necessary capital. In the meantime, their land might have been parcelled up into private plots, preventing farmers from responding to drought by moving their herds somewhere with more water.

“There seems to be a dangerous middle ground where the old ways no longer function but the new ways aren’t up and running yet, and people are at their most vulnerable,” Fraser said.

“If development damages traditional agricultural practices but still leaves people too poor to use capital-based adaptation strategies such as fertilizers, bank loans or higher-yielding breeds of cow, then we see vulnerability rising.”

Fraser says policy-makers and NGOs should take these findings into account. “It’s not that traditional is always better, but as people move from traditional to modern they lose things; policy-makers need to think about how to help them make the transition.”

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Planet Earth Online.

Prof. Evan Fraser
Department of Geography
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