Sudden extreme weather and other complications of climate change could have a more grave effect on food supply than predicted so far, say three new reports, but the effects could be mitigated if some adaptations are made now.
Climate change is one of several flagged as having an impact on food supply and prices in the future, but scientists reporting in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) say the predictions to not reflect the gravity of the situation.
"There is a strong potential for negative surprises," said co-author Francesco Tubiello, a physicist and agricultural expert at the NASA/Goddard Institute of Space Studies. "The projections show a smooth curve, but a smooth curve has never happened in history. Things happen suddenly, and then you can't respond to them."
One of the PNAS papers, 'Adapting Agriculture to climate change', authored by Mark Howden of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, says that farmers can mitigate some of the effects of climate change now, but setting up systems like regional climate-forecasting systems so that farmers can change to different crops or change the timing of plantings.
They can also introduce new varieties or species to withstand predicted changes, and improve flood mitigation or water-storage systems.
Changes like these could reduce damages from one to two degree temperature rises, but Tubiello said that this would only buy time - a few decades - for nations to agree on how to slow or reverse global warming.
"After that, all bets are off," he said.
Some small examples of sudden changes in climate that have had a big impact on an area of food production have already been seen. For instance, this summer saw extreme flooding in the UK, which affected wheat and vegetable harvests.
Consequently, price increases have been predicted to come into effect around now.
Tubiello drew attention to the European heat wave in summer 2003, which caused the corn yield in Italy's Po valley to fall by 36 per cent.
This also underscores the need for food companies to have some alternative sourcing in place for their ingredients or raw materials, as otherwise they could be faced with supply problems that have a serious effect on their business.
But beyond business, the situation has implications for mere survival at a level of subsistence farming. In the 1980s and 1990s droughts in Africa wiped out between 20 and 60 per cent of some nation's herds.
Moreover, higher temperatures can cause outbreaks of weeds, pests and disease in sheep and cattle.
A separate report presented at the Consultative Group on International Research this week highlighted the threat that rising food prices pose to the world's poorest people.
Amongst the package of policy recommendations to mitigate the negative effect, Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, stressed the need for policymakers should take agriculture and food into consideration when developing climate change agendas.
"As the world food situation is being rapidly defined by new driving forces, including income growth, climate change, and increased production of biofuels, the global community must give renewed attention to the role of agriculture, nutrition and health in development policy," said
"Above all, policies must target the world's most poor and hungry people, to ensure they do not get left behind in the wake of overall economic growth and global progress."
The other policy recommendations put forward were:
Developed countries should eliminate trade barriers and programmes that set aside agricultural resources, since more trade, not less is needed when faced with food scarcity.
Developing countries should invest in rural infrastructure and market institutions to improve access to materials that can enhance productivity, like fertilizers, seeds and credit.
Research bodies should position to invest more in agricultural science and technology so as to increase production on a global scale.
Policy-makers should take social protection measures that focus in early childhood nutrition, so as to mitigate the risks of food access.
Full references for the papers were not available at time of publication.
"Crop and Pasture response to climate change"
Francesco Tubiello, Goddard Institute of Space Studies, USA
"Global food security under climate change"
Josef Schmidhuber, Food and Agriculture Organisation, Italy
"Adapting agriculture to climate change"
S Mark Howden, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia
The International Food Policy Research Institute paper is available from www.ifpri.org