By Laurie Goering
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Zimbabwe, worsening droughts mean farmers will struggle to grow a maize crop two out of every five seasons, a leading international agriculture expert has warned.
In India, which consumes more wheat than any country but China, strategic reserves of the crop are probably not sufficient to stand up to large-scale drought or new lethal crop diseases, said Martin Kropff, director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
World food security is far more precarious than most people believe – and unexpected shocks are likely to send food prices soaring, dent stock markets and spur more migration in hungry regions, Kropff said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"When something comes up, are we ready? Are our systems resilient enough to absorb that? I think no, and people don't realise it," said Kropff, a Dutch academic and crop specialist who since last year has led Mexico-based CIMMYT, the world's leading research centre on maize and wheat.
What particularly worries Kropff is that international governments that might have provided the money to scale up agricultural programmes to protect food security are now increasingly distracted by other demands.
European governments, in particular, are preoccupied with the migrant crisis in the region, he said.
"We see that short-term problems – that are important as well, such as refugees – are taking away budget from long-term problems," he said.
"But if food security is at stake, we will get more insecurity in countries and more refugee problems. We have to start thinking long-term. Having food at home is a reason for people to stay there."
Harvests are particularly at risk in poorer parts of the world, where few farmers have adjusted to the new reality that climate change is shifting or shortening growing seasons and is making rainfall much more irregular, he said.
India, for instance, is expected to see its wheat harvest reduced by at least 14 percent this year as a result of bad weather, according to Indian chambers of commerce.
Such problems can be dealt with partly by giving farmers early warning, particularly via mobile phone, of the coming season's expected weather, together with seeds able to withstand heat, drought, floods, emerging diseases or short growing seasons.
New ways of planting without plowing can also help by trapping more moisture in the soil, Kropff said.
But in many places people have not listened to warnings about changing conditions, including cautions that a strong El Nino phenomenon – now winding down – would likely produce crop-destroying drought in southern Africa, Ethiopia, Indonesia and a range of other countries, he said.
"It was predictable. We knew the El Nino was coming," he said. "But everybody thinks, 'Let's see what happens'."
$50 MILLION VS $1.6 BILLION?
The good news is that many new climate-related threats to agriculture could be significantly reduced by expanding the use of existing technology, including more resilient seeds and simple farming machinery.
Kropff said he believed $50 million (35.55 million pound) would be enough to launch the scale up drought-busting forms of agriculture in southern African countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, dramatically cutting crop losses.
That is less than the $60 million in food aid the U.N. Development Programme has raised for Zimbabwe this year alone. In total, Harare is seeking $1.6 billion in food aid this year.
Kropff said that in Mexico, despite increasing heat, CIMMYT has been able to raise harvests of maize by 20 percent over three years on 400,000 test hectares, by helping more than 50 small companies to start selling resilient seed varieties and entrepreneurs to buy and rent efficient planting and harvesting equipment.
"To really make sure the effects of an El Nino or other drought are minimised, we need a major programme (to expand) existing technologies. We need to implement them in a big way," he said.
Crop insurance is another promising way of dealing with potential losses, he added, particularly if enough small weather stations are set up to ensure payouts linked to weather triggers reach farmers who need them, not those who don't.
(Reporting by Laurie Goering; editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)