Climate change is likely to undermine food production in the developing world, while industrialized countries could gain in production potential, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said in a speech at the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation Conference in Chennai, India.
"Crop yield potential is likely to increase at higher latitudes for global average temperature increases of up to 1 to 3°C depending on the crop, and then decrease beyond that," he said. "On the contrary, at lower latitudes, especially in the seasonally dry tropics, crop yield potential is likely to decline for even small global temperature rises, which would increase the risk of hunger."
Greater frequency of droughts and floods would affect local production negatively, especially in subsistence sectors at low latitudes, Dr. Diouf added.
"Rainfed agriculture in marginal areas in semi-arid and sub-humid regions is mostly at risk," he explained. "India could lose 125 million tons of its rainfed cereal production -- equivalent to 18 percent of its total production."
The impacts of climate change on forests and on forest dependent people are already evident in increased incidences of forest fires and outbreaks of forest pests and diseases. Climate change adaptation will be needed in a variety of ecosystems, including agro-ecosystems (crops, livestock and grasslands) forests and woodlands, inland waters and coastal and marine ecosystems, according to Diouf.
Using new biotechnologies
Science and technology must spearhead agricultural production in the next 30 years at a pace faster than the Green Revolution did during the past three decades, Dr. Diouf asserted.
"Exploiting the new biotechnologies, including in particular in vitro culture, embryo transfer and the use of DNA markers, can supplement conventional breeding approaches, thus enhancing yield levels, increasing input use efficiency, reducing risk, and enhancing nutritional quality," he said.
But, he cautioned, most genetically modified (GM) crops being cultivated today were developed to be herbicide tolerant and resistant to pests. Development of GM crops with traits valuable for poor farmers, especially within the context of climate change -- such as resistance to drought, extreme temperatures, soil acidity and salinity -- is not yet a reality.
"I cannot sufficiently underline the need to also address the needs of resource poor farmers in rainfed areas and on marginal lands," said Diouf. "Ensuring that new biotechnologies help achieve this goal, in full awareness of biosafety, socio economic and ethical concerns associated with the use of some of these technologies remains a challenge for the entire scientific community."
In India, successes and shortfalls
Noting that the theme of this year's World Food Day (15 October) is "The Right to Food," Diouf praised India for playing a pioneering and model role in implementing this right with contributions from all parts of society.
In particular, he highlighted the country's Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme, which provides millions of mothers and children with health, nutrition and hygiene education, preschool education, supplementary feeding, growth monitoring and promotion, and also links to primary healthcare services like immunization and vitamin A supplements.
FAO's chief executive also lauded India for its national Midday Meal programme, which provides lunch free of cost to school children, and for tackling issues of rural poverty via its National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
Yet despite these successes, Diouf also noted that challenges remain.
"The genuinely impressive success story of Indian economic growth and its emergence as a global powerhouse is also confronted with a more pessimistic picture as a large proportion of the Indian population has yet to benefit from the dynamic changes underway in the country," he noted, citing statistics from India's National Family Health Survey which show that 40 percent of the country's adults are underweight and that 79 percent of Indian children between three months and three years suffer from some type of anaemia.
“No state in India is free from iodine deficiency disorders, and Vitamin A deficiency continues to be a public health problem among pre-school children. In a country with 348 million people aged under 14, these are alarming levels of child malnutrition,” Dr Diouf said.