F9B: The Illustrated Series

Download the Webzine: Climate Change


Hello, my name is Evan Fraser and I work at the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada.

As anyone who has followed this video series knows, climate change, population growth, and high-energy prices mean that many experts worry farmers will struggle over the next generation to produce enough food for everyone.

This video is going to explore how climate change may affect global food security.

The literature on climate change and global food security is, quite frankly, scary. In it, we learned that the world is going to become hotter and dryer in some key regions and while crops are likely to flourish in areas such as parts of Canada that will enjoy longer growing seasons, other areas are likely to suffer; such as much of Africa, and in some of our most important grain producing regions like the US Great Plains and Australia.

But one thing we don’t know all that much about is how farmers are going to react to this problem. This is an extremely important aspect of the equation. To illustrate this let me tell you a story about my own childhood. My grandfather was a farmer close to Niagara Falls in Canada. (And this is a picture of me sitting on his lap with my brother Nick and my cousins Dave and Ian in the back.)

One summer when I was about 17 we had a bad drought. The soil became quite dry and crumbly and the corn crop started to fall over. But my grandfather didn’t despair. He had me and another lad spend a very arduous few days dragging irrigation pipes all over the farm. We also eased our way between the growing plants, held each one up in turn, and then, with our feet, buttressed each plant with a small pile of soil. As a result of these adaptations, when I return to the farm to harvest the corn, I was impressed that the yield seemed fine.

About 10 years later, my grandfather was in his late 80s, and another drought hit. But by then, my grandfather was too old to farm, and I was living in the city. So the labour wasn’t available to adapt to the drought and the corn crop was ruined.

This story is important because it illustrates how the same farm with the same crop and experiencing the same weather-related problem can produce very different effects.

So what about climate change?

Climate modellers use math to predict the effect of climate change on global food security. In essence they have complicated equations that estimate how crop yields may change as temperature and precipitation changes.

One modelling exercise that I was involved in tried to estimate the effect of climate change on China’s winter wheat crop. In this study we were able to demonstrate that if farmers did nothing to adapt, then the effect of climate change on wheat would be catastrophic. 

But if farmers were like my grandfather in the first drought…that is if they had access to the tools they needed in order to adapt to the hotter drier conditions of the future then climate change was not projected to have all that significant an effect on yield.

In essence our climate models give us different views of the future[8]. Some of these views are very scary.

But the models also are optimistic in that they show us how and where climate change adaptation can be most effective.

What the models don’t tell us is which future we are going to inhabit. That’s because whether we live in a scary future or one where climate change is manageable depends on the political, economic, and social decisions that we make today.

For instance, developing drought tolerant seeds is an extremely useful way of adapting to climate change. Developing better weather forecasting tools so that farmers can be prepared for climate change is another good strategy. Building up soil organic matter on farms is also crucial. This is because soil organic matter acts like a sponge trapping water and keeping it for dry periods. And helping farmers develop better and more robust rural economies so they have jobs to fall back on if their crops fail is also extremely important.

One point needs to be remembered though. Too often in the past, scientists have simply developed technologies in their labs without consulting adequately with the people who are going to use the technologies. This results in a mismatch between what farmers need and what the scientists develop.  So, whenever we think about developing new technologies, we have to include the farmer, and the farmers’ perspectives, in any discussions.