AS the world braces for tougher climate conditions in the coming decades, it has become more and more clear that climate change is having a direct impact on our food system.
The issue of food security has become of extreme importance especially for Pacific island people today. The world's most vulnerable people are at risk of falling into the hunger and poverty trap as extreme weather because of the effects of climate change, such as droughts and floods, are already causing an increase in food prices. This increase threatens food security in many parts of the world, pushing the poor into destituteness as they spend more of their income providing for themselves and their families.
Climate change impacts on food systems in several ways and these impacts range from direct to indirect, and differ from region to region. In Fiji, there have already been stories highlighted in the media of various villages that are struck with this reality; Dravuwalu Village on Totoya island in Lau (FT 18/09/2011) is one among the many that face the challenge of accessing food sources.
According to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food security is defined as "a situation when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life".
Because of multiple socio-economic and bio-physical factors affecting food systems and food security, the capacity for a food system to reduce its vulnerability to climate change is not uniform as this requires improved systems of food production, food distribution and economic access for food systems to be able to cope with the global crisis. There are four dimensions of food security: food availability/production, food accessibility, food utilisation and food system stability; and climate change is expected to affect all these. The first to be affected will be people who are already vulnerable and food insecure. Agriculture-based systems will also be at the immediate risk of crop failure, new pests and diseases and loss of livestock. So how will climate change affect food security and the agricultural sector in the Pacific? Food security in the Pacific will be influenced by a number of factors, such as, adaptability of the agricultural systems to climate change, globalisation, national policies and also socio-cultural changes.
Owing to their high vulnerability and low adaptive capacity, small islands have legitimate concerns regarding their future. It is very likely that subsistence and commercial agriculture in the Pacific will be adversely affected by climate change. Sea level rise is a major concern and because of it, low-lying areas will be permanently inundated whereby making it unsuitable for agriculture. Saline water may also seep through and affect the surrounding soils. Plants respond to salinity by reducing leaf size and shoot growth. Taro (dalo as we call it in the iTaukei language), a staple crop in the Pacific with high cultural value is said to respond to salinity in similar fashion. Sea level rise will also severely affect atoll agriculture by contaminating the fresh water lens through saltwater intrusion, affect coastal communities through accelerated shoreline erosion, and alter fish, shellfish and wildlife populations.
According to recent estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the average global surface temperature is projected to increase between 1.40C and 30C above 1990 levels by the year 2100. In the Pacific region, temperature increase can influence the composition of crops and the rate of photosynthesis for many plants may decrease with increasing temperature. This increase in temperature will increase sea surface temperatures causing coral bleaching. Coral reefs serve as habitat for many marine organisms and are a significant source of food for coastal communities as well as serving as coastal protection structures.
There is also evidence that clams and sea turtles also suffer from sea temperature changes. Clams, just like coral reefs, are also affected by bleaching. With the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide, weed and pest invasion will also become a challenge. The impact of climate change on food security in the Pacific is compounded by many other stress factors such as lack of financial resources, fertile land, irrigation facilities and access to drought resistant and pest resistant species. In addition to these, the Pacific region is becoming increasingly dependent on imported food items thus becoming more vulnerable to breaks in food supply. This leads us to our next question which is: what are the adaptation options and priorities of the Pacific region? Firstly, there has to be build-up of financial and technical capacity. This can be achieved through human resource development, institutional strengthening, research and systematic observation and public awareness.
And secondly, prevent any further damage to coral reefs, for example, reduce human impacts on coral reefs, and ban coral mining and assigning protection status for more coral reefs. Similarly, there should be restoration and rehabilitation of damaged ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves. Adaptive capacity and resilience can also be strengthened through traditional environmental knowledge and experiences of environmental change.
* The article is an analysis on climate change and food security in the Pacific by Moleen Nand, a Master of Science in Climate Change student at the University of the South Pacific.