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Online tool anticipates tomorrow's agriculture today

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 22 Dec 2011 10:40 GMT
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p> NAIROBI (AlertNet) - Coping with the impacts of climate change and trying to stop them getting much worse is already one of the world’s biggest concerns. But scientists at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are looking further ahead, in an attempt to get farmers to plan for the effects predicted 20 years or more from now.

Under a CGIAR programme called Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), researchers have developed a software-based tool that offer farmers a glimpse into their future by identifying places where growing conditions today match those expected in their fields in two to five decades’ time.

The tool can be used to link climate and crop models with agricultural technologies, including improved varieties and agronomic practices, by matching sites that could offer ideas for adaptation to shifting climate patterns.

“It shows areas that are currently experiencing climates similar to those that other places will experience in the future. Hence (it) is important for identifying practices required for adapting agricultural systems to future climates that are ... being used by other farmers in different parts of the world,” explains Julián Ramírez-Villegas, one of the developers of the software and a CCAFS researcher at Britain’s Leeds University and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

'HOW WILL MY FARM LOOK?'

The tool supports three types of analysis, according to Ramírez-Villegas. The first is a comparison between present-day climate conditions at one site and in other locations. The second involves comparing a site's future predicted climate with a similar one already prevalent in other places, answering the question, 'where should I look now to find conditions that match those expected for my land in the future?’.

And the third allows you to compare the current climate in one location with that predicted for others in decades to come, answering the question: 'which site in the future will look like mine looks like now?’.

Ramírez-Villegas told AlertNet the software offers two interfaces developed for different user groups. The first, known as an R-library - a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics - is targeted at those with some background in programming and statistics. The second is an online interface that draws from the R-library, built for scientists working in agriculture but with more limited technical skills.

“The tool uses a series of statistical functions applied onto future and current climate data, as well as input from the user (target-site location and some tool-specific parameters) to find out where the analogue areas of a particular site’s future or current conditions are located. Hence it answers the very important question: how will my site look in 30 or 50 years?” says Ramírez-Villegas.

Some African farmers have already started using new methods like crop diversification as a way of adapting to climate change. For example, 10 years ago, the staple food for farmers in Eastern Kenya was maize, but today, some are shifting to cassava and sorghum flour as the main ingredient of their meals, with help from experts at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.

MAINTAINING YIELDS IN HIGHER TEMPERATURES

According to Ramírez-Villegas, evidence-based studies have already shown that maize farmers in Africa are highly vulnerable to temperature increases, with yields predicted to fall around 20 percent per 1 degree Celsius rise.

“Predictions of climate change by 2030 indicate that Africa’s maize mean growing-season temperature could increase by about 1.5 degrees Celsius, hence causing substantial yield decreases,” says the researcher. “However, there are other areas in the world that currently grow maize under 1 to 3 degree-higher temperatures. These areas can currently cope with such temperatures, and could hence be useful for adapting African agriculture to climate change."

Similar case studies might exist for other crops, the scientist added.

Ramírez-Villegas says the software tool can be used directly by farmers as long as they have the technical knowledge and internet connectivity required. But if they lack the ability to access it, or are unable to translate it into practical adaptation measures – which is the likely case with many smallholders - then national and international research institutions can incorporate it into their efforts to develop agricultural adaptation strategies which can then be disseminated among farmers.

FARMER EXCHANGES

The CCAFS programme will also fund a series of farmer exchanges between South Asia (involving India, Nepal, and Bangladesh) and East Africa (covering Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya).

This initiative, called “Farms of the Future”, is being coordinated by social and agro-climate scientists, and aims to evaluate farmers’ responses to changing climatic conditions.

The key idea is to use the climate analogue tool to acquaint farmers with their possible climate futures via physical farm visits in different regions of the world. According to CGIAR experts, this will enable farmers to exchange ideas and share knowledge between communities of producers. 

Osana Bonilla-Findji, a CGIAR science officer who works on adaptation to climate change, said teams at two British universities are still ironing out the details of the process for selecting farmers to participate.

The programme aims to create a network of innovative farmers and identify climate adaptation strategies that are suitable for individual communities, while improving understanding of local practices and tools that could help deal with shifts in climate conditions.

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science writer based in Nairobi.

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