Global warming threatens world’s maize

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Up to 10 million tons of maize may be lost each year due to climate change, according to a new report. The shortage could eventually affect 140 million people in developing countries, where maize is a staple food for both humans and livestock.

The predictions, made by scientists at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya, are based on data from thousands of weather stations worldwide.

Using a computer modelling programme to simulate weather conditions at different locations, the scientists predicted that rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns will vary widely across the globe and make the decline in production unevenly spread.

“In some areas the fall in maize yields could be even greater than 10 per cent, effectively threatening the food security of poor households,” says Peter Jones of CIAT, who is author of the report published this month in Global Environmental Change.

Predicting future weather patterns with certainty is impossible, says Trevor Rowe of the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP). However, he adds that there has already been an increase in weather-related disasters, especially over the past two years, putting extra strain on the WFP’s ability to respond to hunger crises. In the Horn of Africa, where maize is a basic food, drought continues to threaten 14 million people.

The researchers hope that some of the potential losses in maize yields could be offset if new crops adapted to climate change are developed. Scientists working in southern and eastern Africa have already developed drought-tolerant maize plants that produce 20 to 35 per cent more grain than original varieties. However, it can take up to 10 years for a new crop variety to reach all farmers, a time scale that scientists say is too slow to cope with climate change.

More than 50 development agencies are now accelerating the testing and distribution of drought-resistant plant varieties, according to Future Harvest (the foundation that CIAT and ILRI are members of), which promotes science-based solutions to eradicating hunger.

“Our ultimate objective is to arm the poorest and most vulnerable members of society with coping strategies geared to their location,” says Jones. “If we can provide quality information on local climate effects and encourage policy makers to act on this information, farmers will likely suffer less from crop losses due to climate change.”

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Future Harvest