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A Fight to the Finish Against Climate Change

By - Aug 20 2015

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When you go up against a tough opponent like climate change, you had best go in the company of heavyweights. This is the prudent thinking that prompted the Inter-American Development Bank and the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) – a member of the CGIAR Consortium –  to enter into a collaborative agreement last year. Signed at IDB headquarters in Washington, D.C., last June, their “memorandum of understanding” widens the arena for engagement with key players in agricultural research across Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).

The language of this and related documents is not exactly filled with fighting words: “We the undersigned hereby declare,” etc. But looking past the legalese, you realize that the two organizations are committed to positioning LAC in the broader  global debate about agriculture and to mobilizing official development assistance that can help the sector flourish in this region. The opportunities for collaboration between partners are numerous. Read below about some of the joint endeavors that the IDB and CIAT are exploring, as they strive to harness LAC’s agriculture prowess to feed the world.

In the first round, they are seeking to conduct a comprehensive regional assessment of agriculture’s vulnerability to climate change impacts, building on previous IDB analysis. The earlier work concluded that climate change could have significant negative impacts on key crops, with lost agricultural exports projected to range from US$32 to $54 billion annually by 2050.

In other words, climate change threatens to punch a gaping hole in Latin America’s “global breadbasket,” thus undermining the region’s enormous potential to help achieve global food security. How to realize this potential was the central focus of arecent publication released by IDB in partnership with the Global Harvest Initiative.

On the alert for agricultural soft spots, the partners will explore the use of the latest set of global climate models to analyze expected climate change impacts on maize and soybean plus several other crops. Researchers will also conduct field experiments at CIAT’s research facilities in Colombia to determine the effect of higher soil temperatures on crop seeds. CIAT brings to this work considerable knowledge and expertise in its capacity as lead center of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

In addition, IDB and CIAT will explore use of a state-of-the-art economics model to assess how changes in yields could affect the future market outlook of key crops. This analysis in turn could provide the basis for detailed case studies that trace the social consequences of climate change for vulnerable communities in terms of variables like food prices, rural incomes, and infant malnourishment. The partners would widely disseminate both the research results and methods used to generate them, while strengthening national capacity to carry out such analysis.

But what to do about crops that wimp out in the face of climate change? In recent decades, some countries (notably Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico) have acquired impressive strength in agricultural research, including modern biotechnology, which will enable them to create climate-resilient crops for the future, possessing traits like drought and flooding tolerance. But other countries in LAC have more moderate capacities for crop improvement.

With the aim of enabling Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru to punch above their weight against climate change, the IDB and CIAT are exploring ways to connect researchers through the development of a regional biosciences platform at CIAT. Offering advanced capabilities in genomics, bioinformatics, genetic transformation, and related areas, the platform can help create excellent opportunities for researchers from these countries to capitalize on their immense wealth of plant genetic resources, delivering important benefits for farmers and consumers.

The door is also open for targeted efforts to promote adaptive measures in climate change “hotspots,” particularly Haiti and the “Trifinio” region of Central America, where the borders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras meet.

A parallel initiative called “20 by 20” will attempt to curb a central force driving climate change in the first place. Unlike other regions, LAC generates greenhouse gas emissions primarily through land-use change (especially deforestation), which accounts for more than two-thirds of the region’s total emissions. To do its part toward achieving global climate stabilization by 2050, LAC must restore millions of hectares of degraded land through measures such as reforestation and improved management of tropical forages – even if it also successfully curbs deforestation.

To this end, the new initiative, uniting the region’s half dozen biggest agricultural organizations under IDB leadership, will commit itself to recovering 20 million hectares of degraded land by 2020. The partnership is quickly getting into fighting shape, with the aim of launching the 20 by 20 Initiative at the 20th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to take place in Lima, Peru, next December.

Hopefully, this will help get climate change negotiators in agriculture’s corner.

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