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Maize and bean farmers threatened by climate change

Over the coming decades, climate change is expected to pose major difficulties for one million maize and bean farmers in Central America.

A recent study has found that climate change threatens one million maize and bean farmers in Central America (Photo credit: CIAT/Neil Palmer)

According to a recent report released by scientists from Catholic Relief Services, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, maize and bean farmers in Central America should be worried about how climate change will impact their crops.

The study, Tortillas on the Roaster, explains that higher temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns, prompted by climate change, could affect one million maize and bean farmers in Central America. Predicting an average temperature rise of one degree Celsius by the 2020s and a two degree rise by the 2050s, the models used in the report also anticipate that consistency in rainfall will change considerably, limiting access to water for the 80 percent of Central America’s maize and bean farms which are on rainfed land.

The impacts of these changes in weather are twofold, explains Axel Schmidt, a lead author of the report. “First, higher temperatures mean greater heat stress on maize and beans: when it is hotter, there is more evapotranspiration and plants require more water to cool down.” While this is a predicament on its own, the situation becomes even more problematic given the expectation that rainfall will be harder to predict because of shifting weather patterns. Thus, at a time when heat-stressed crops will need more water, they will likely have less. “Secondly, beans, in particular, require cooler temperatures in order to reproduce,” says Schmidt. Exceeding maximum nighttime temperatures of 26 to 30 degrees Celsius affects bean plants’ ability to flower, diminishing yields. Overall, the study estimates that maize and bean production losses will be near $20 million per year by 2020.

Meanwhile, according to the study, soil degradation poses another problem for maize and bean farmers. Severe soil deficiencies in already heavily degraded parts of Honduras and throughout El Salvador could prompt crop losses of up to one third over the next decade, especially for maize production which is particularly susceptible to poor soils.

Poor soil health poses a significant roadblock to adaption strategies, claims Schmidt. “If you follow the discussion among researchers and policy makers,” he says, “the main focus is on finding new, resistant varieties of crops. But these new varieties still require good soils in order to be effective. If we don’t take into account the health of the soil, then the new varieties will have no impact. They are not immune to poor soils.”

The researchers, therefore, make several recommendations, including encouraging crop diversification, improving soil and water management, boosting non-agricultural income for farmers, and educating farmers on effective coping strategies. Although there is no quick fix, explains Paul Hicks, Regional Coordinator of the Global Water Initiative-Central America for Catholic Relief Services, “this is about getting back to basics. Extension services across the region need to be reinvigorated to train small farmers in soil and water management. And governments need to lead, they have the ability to make a real difference through setting climate-smart agricultural policies.”

Given the adoption of these recommendations, successful mitigation is within the realm of possibility, says Schmidt. “Through the use of these policy prescriptions, the predicted losses can be prevented. There are even some areas in which we may improve production if we adapt wisely and with proper soil management. Taking the right actions now, we can really mitigate the impact. Those farmers who are willing to adapt now will be able to survive.”

Andrew Alesbury is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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