Monday, August 16, 2010


What will happen to food production as global warming adversely affects regions considered to be the bread baskets of the Earth? In the previous post, media played up the incidence of natural disasters all over the globe. These are veritable warning signs that need the attention of people on this planet and planning by their governments, assuming they are still functioning.
Veteran Filipino journalist Juan L. Mercado gives us a microcosm of some dire results of this global warming and its impact on food. Food production in the tropics could be imperilled, and the colder regions on the planet could pitch in. But could they?

This is an issue that the United Nations Organization must focus on with urgent intensity. It is not only an inconvenient truth at this point; it is a frightening possibility within our lifetime.


By Juan L. Mercado (The Philippine Inquirer 14 Aug )

“The promise of food lies in the tropics,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organization director general said at the University of the Philippines. “Here in this sun-drenched belt of land, temperature is benign and rainfall abundant. These could be the food granaries for the world of our children.”

Not anymore.

Rising temperatures have widened the “Tropical Belt, “notes Nature Geoscience.. Since the FAO official delivered his Los Baños address in May 1979, the tropics expanded by between 2 and 4.8 degrees latitude. As the world warms, edges of the “Belt” -- outer boundaries of the subtropical dry zones – drift towards the poles.

Temperature and rainfall changes are altering yields. . Affected are politically-volatile crops like corn and rice “In the Philippines, rice yields drop by 10% for every one degree centigrade increase in night-time temperature”, BBC’s environment correspondent Richard Black writes.

The slump is region wide. As droughts dry reservoirs, yields have fallen by 10-20% over the last 25 years. More declines are ahead.

"We found that as the daily minimum temperature increases, or as nights get hotter, rice yields drop." Researcher Jarrod Welch said. In fact, where “temperature increases more than 3C, impacts are stressful to all crops and in all regions, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded

Currently three billion people live in the tropics and subtropics. They’ll nearly to double by the end of the century. How many more Filipinos will need food then?

The National Statistical Board asserts there are 94 million of us today. . No, sir, it’s 99.9 million, counter some US and international bodies.

The squabble stems from the flawed 2007 census. An “implosion” of voting age (18 years old) residents in Maguindanao for example, shoved growth rates to triple national levels. That skewed the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao demographic profile.

“There’ll be rude surprises in the 2010 census,” predict demographers at UP, Xavier, and San Carlos Universities. All agree there are five Filipinos today where there was one in 1940. We’ll breach the 100 million mark sooner rather than later.

The sea level has risen rapidly, Vital Signs points out. More than half (55%) of sea level rise “results from the melting of glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets”. This happened in tandem with pollution, acidification, and changes in seasonal water cycles.

Seventy percent of Filipinos cluster in coastal areas. Seaside resort owners are bewildered as sea water encroaches into front yards. Reclamation project calculations, in Lapu-Lapu City and elsewhere, now look shaky.

Fishermen are reeling from the impact. “Warming of sea water is associated with El Niño episodes. These caused coral bleaching on massive scales never seen before,” notes Ocean Heritage.

El Nido reef, for instance, once had 60-70% coral cover. El Nino, a decade ago, stripped that down to 5-10%. It has not recovered to date. Sea surface temperature in Bolinao, Pangasinan, ranged between 34.1 °C to 34.9 °C. That grilled giant clams.

“Mercury and lead emissions, from coal-fired power plants, particularly in the inner seas of the Visayas” will ravage fisheries further. Unmet protein needs from depleted fishing grounds are dumped on stressed farms..

Formation of severe storms could double. Remember “Ondoy” last year and “Basyang” as this year’s storm cycle began? Warmer climates will bring changes to rainfall and resulting drought. “It’s best to read the weather forecast before praying for rain,” Mark Twain once joked.

But it’s not funny that the “most extreme summers of the last century could become routine towards the end of this century”, predicts the University of Seattle. What would be summer 2100 in the Philippines be like?

One thing is sure. Today’s glut of 41 million tons of rice, recklessly imported by the Arroyo administration, would not be possible. Rice exporters will find their capacity sapped.

Filipino policy makers must move beyond politics-as-usual concerns. Executive and legislative agendas need to face up to gut issues. Water shortages, soil erosion, adaptation to, or mitigation of, weather change matter more than coddling Supreme Court justices by unqualified towns itching to be cities.

There are biological limits to what can be done. . "We can't just move all our crops north or south because a lot of crops are photosensitive.” notes Dr Geoff Hawtin at International Centre for Tropical Agriculture. “Flowering is triggered by day length”.

Will Russia and Canada, with their colder weather regimes, turn out to be the world's bread baskets tomorrow? Would the poor of Asia and Africa be able to pay for imports?

“The race is on to breed maize which can tolerate the heat of future summers”, says James Morgan, BBC’s science reporter. Countries are urged to maintaining maximum level of genetic diversity. Seed banks is a good insurance policy, providing options for developing future strains.

There is a potential for heat tolerance in”beans, legumes, sorghum, millet --- anything which grows in an environment subject to drought.”

Adapt or starve is the ultimate option that an altered tropical belt could offer. "You can let it happen and painfully adapt, or you can plan for it," said Seattle’s Professor Battisti. "You could also mitigate it and not let it happen in the first place.

"We are not doing enough… We don't know where the tipping points are,” Hatwin adds, “They could come quite quickly."

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JUAN L. MERCADO started his journalistic career as a reporter for one of the community papers in Cebu. He then joined the staff of Evening News, serving first as a Senate reporter, then later as associate editor. Mercado was the first director of the Philippine Press Institute (1965-1972). He instituted PPI's first training programs as well as hands-on courses that helped facilitate coverage of sensitive beats like street demonstrations, the stock exchanges, the police and military.

He continued writing exposes on graft and corruption in government using the Philippine News Service as outlet, while still PPI director. Among the more notable stories he wrote were: the plight of sacada workers in Visayan sugar fields; customs corruption and widespread leakage of questions in a (nationwide) civil service examination for professionals.

He joined the Press Foundation of Asia as its Joint Chief Executive and started (DEPTHnews), an experiment in developmental journalism. He worked as editorial director of the service.

Mercado also served as correspondent for the Financial Times of London; the Honolulu Star Bulletin as well as The Bulletin of Sydney in Australia.

He was among the 22 journalists detained in the first wave of arrests by the Philippine martial law regime. Upon his release, he became communication officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand. Thereafter, he was posted in FAO Headquarters in Rome, Italy as Attaché d' Cabinet.

Juan L. Mercado graduated from the University of San Carlos, Cebu City. He also took special courses at the American Press Institute in Columbia University in 1964 and at Henry Kissinger's foreign policy seminar at Harvard University.

He was named Journalist of the Year by Manila Rotary Club and received an Outstanding Alumnus Award at the University of San Carlos in 1970.

Source: Press Club Golden Jubilarians (thesis prepared by students of Miriam College) with revisions by. J.L. Mercado

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