Climate change and farming: 'Unpredictability is here to stay'

In many parts of the world, droughts are getting longer, more intense and more frequent. Alex Jones, climate and environment director at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, tells DW about the risk to food security.

DW:  So we're facing this global heat wave and it's impacting farmers. How are they coping?

Alex Jones: It's very hard for farmers to cope once you're midway through a [farming] cycle, especially if you're on a long cycle crop like cereals. If you planted wheat or maize, once it's in the ground there's absolutely nothing you could do except maybe irrigate a bit more. But even that's not going to reduce the wilt.

It's more about having better information, putting in seeds that are more resilient. And especially about spreading your risk, and not focusing exclusively on one crop, but multi-cropping. And increasing biodiversity in the field, so that there are different crops, and you hedge your risk against total failure.

Monculture cropping suffers under extreme conditions

Could drought cause food shortages and famines in the years or decades to come, and what regions are most at risk?

Nature and Environment | 19.07.2018

Absolutely, yes it can of course cause famines. The FAO estimate is that we have 830 million people who are currently food-insecure. They do not have enough food to eat, without this kind of shortage.

We also know that we produce more than enough food in the world to feed everybody. But there are redistribution problems, and about one-third of all food is lost at the transformation stage. So there is a lot of slack to be picked up there; but obviously, decreasing production could be a major factor.

We're also looking at the issue of nutrient depletion. Climate change, CO2 changes in the air, are having an impact on the nutrient content of food. Some cereals have about 10 percent less protein, and they have less minerals and less vitamins. So it's not just a question of how much food, but also the quality of that food.

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Business | 26.07.2018

Drought killing Germany's crops

Is drought going to become the new normal for farmers?

Unfortunately, variability is going to become the new normal. So too much rain one year, drought the next year, freezing temperatures the next year, and then a really good year the next. That's the biggest problem. If we had a constant trend or we knew that the temperature was going to go up by 2 degrees and stay there, we could deal with that, 2 degrees is manageable.

The problem is variability. Extreme weather events — cyclones, hurricanes, rainfall, hail fall, high temperatures in August in northern Europe. The unpredictability is the hardest element, and it seems that unpredictability is here to stay.

The solutions are within our reach. But why aren't they being tapped into?

Well they're expensive, and farmers are already often very stressed in terms of barely making a profit. And of course in a year like this, where they're probably going to lose money because of the drought, if we were to come in and say: "Well, we want you to invest more money in limited tillage or zero-tillage equipment," of course they're going to say, "You're crazy, I'm already in debt."

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

Unusually dry

In northeastern Germany, there has been hardly any rainfall in recent months. The country's weather service says Saxony-Anhalt received just 15 liters of rainfall per square meter — roughly a quarter of the average. Across Germany, there were just 50 liters of rainfall per square meter, half of the usual amount. Mecklenburg-West Pomerania received more sunshine than any other German state.

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

Unpredictable weather

The little rain that fell came down very unevenly across Germany. In May, the country's weather service warned of potential forest fires in parts of Lower Saxony. Meanwhile in southwestern Germany, some towns faced torrential rains that flooded cellars and roads, such as here in Fischbach, Rhineland-Palatinate.

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

Fire alert!

The danger of forest fires is extremely high right now throughout the country. The state of Brandenburg faces the biggest threat. In recent weeks, authorities have been forced to put out more than 100 fires. Recently, 100 hectares of forest and wheat crops burned to the ground in the Oder-Spree region. Brandenburg authorities reported that 90 percent of fires are inadvertently caused by humans.

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

Busy times for firefighters

It took 40 firefighters 13 hours to extinguish the flames sweeping through Brandenburg's Oder-Spree region. A fire in Rostock, meanwhile, was not caused by humans — but by a bird. Police say the animal caused an electricity cable to short circuit, which then set a nearby field ablaze.

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

Tapping into new sources

Saxony-Anhalt's firefighters, meanwhile, are so busy they needed to get creative to find new sources of water. So they headed to a nearby pool to refill their tanks. The dryness, meanwhile, not only makes fires more likely but also poses a major threat to farmers.

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

Early harvests, low yields

The unusually dry weather has forced many farmers to harvest their crops early. The German Farmers' Association has stated that even April was too warm and dry. The following months meant wheat crops ripened much faster than expected, though insufficient rain has produced a low yield. Sudden torrential rainfall, meanwhile, made matters worse by destroying parts of the crops.

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

Crop failures on the cards

Potatoes, sugar cane and corn are usually harvested in autumn. They require much more water than wheat and rapeseed. So due to the unusually dry weather, Germany's corn plants are in bad shape. The German Farmers' Association president, Joachim Rukwied, is pessimistic and fears crop failures could jeopardize the livelihoods of many farmers.

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

No water in sight

There are two kind of drought: "Drought in a meteorological sense refers to a drop in rainfall within one month below the long-term average," says Stephan Tober of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research. This causes a drought in the agricultural sense, meaning that there is too little water in the ground. That's a problem for wheat and meadows on the banks of river Elbe here in Dresden.

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

Vegetation adapts to heat

"Extreme dry spells can cause long-term damage to trees and recovery takes a long time," says Ingolf Kühn of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research. Vegetation has a memory, so to speak, and may adapt if there are several consecutive years with little rainfall. Some German cities have now called on residents to help out in watering trees, so that some day, cacti will not replace trees.

Germany's heat wave: Shining sun and burning fields

Problems on the River Rhine

The Rhine River and its tributaries have lowered to dangerous levels, leading to restrictions in shipping. The Mannheim office of the federal Waterway and Shipping Department confirmed that, until conditions change, ships in the upper Rhine can only be loaded with 1500 tons of cargo, down from their usual weight of 3000 or more.

It's about finding the collective will, and making sure that everybody is on a level playing field, because of course if the farmers in Germany do this but their neighbors in another country don't, then they'll be at a competitive risk. We all need to agree on certain standards so that it's a level playing field and we can make these investments.

Farmers in some regions of Germany are facing crop losses of up to a quarter. Most are able to draw from insurance schemes to help cover these losses. But how can insurance work when the losses occur year after year, as might start happening?

Insurance premiums will go up. That's the basic functioning of insurance: The higher the risk, the higher the premiums. So the question at some point is, will farmers be able to afford insurance? Will it be worth their while if the premiums are so high? And that's a major concern, because some of that is underwritten by government support as well. So we might see an insurance systems fail if they're unable to cope. And of course, we're very concerned about all the nascent crop insurance schemes that we're trying to help support in developing countries because they very much need these.

Farms in northern Germany have been wracked by drought this summer

Did the Paris Agreement include the agricultural sector?

Unfortunately not. The Paris Agreement did not mention agriculture. However, since then there's been huge progress. There was a big discussion at the COP22 called the Marrakesh Partnership which agreed to come up with an agricultural component. And at the COP23 last year in Bonn, there was what is called the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, which is an agreement that all the parties to COP will work together for two years on five focus areas in agriculture, and come up with standards to be included in the Paris Agreement on agriculture.

So there are things in the works, but the world just needs to come together to coagulate on it? 

What we need is to speed it up because we don't have two decades to work on this. We really need to get results within a few years. Otherwise it will be too late.

Alex Jones is director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's Climate and Environment Division.

The interview was conducted by Sonya Diehn, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Tackling food insecurity with hydroponics

The challenge of feeding a planet that’s set to have 3 billion more people on it by 2050 - made even more acute by climate change as some parts of the planet become wetter, while others drier - means the pressure is on to find ways to feed the planet. So farming has to become more productive – and new areas to grow, especially in dry climates, must be found. One potential solution: hydroponics.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Growing plants in the air

Farming with little space and producing higher crop yields: hydroponics fits the bill. Though it may sound like something out of Star Trek, it's actually been around since the Aztecs – they built floating farms around the city of Tenochtitlan. Hydroponics essentially means growing plants without soil, and instead using a nutrient-rich solution to supply them with water and minerals.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Boosting yields

With hydroponics, plants – usually supported by soil – are propped up artificially instead, and a nutrient solution is applied to the suspended roots using a number of different methods, including spraying them with a solution mist. Together with artificial lights, heaters and other equipment, the nutrient solutions help plants develop faster, produce larger yields and grow all year round.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Efficient hydroponics

Hydroponics can recycle water, meaning it could use as little as 10 percent of the water a conventional farm uses – making it an option in arid environments. And the closed system means nutrients don't escape, cutting fertilizer down to as much as a quarter of what a conventional farm would use. Also, almost no pesticide is needed, since soil pests aren't an issue for plants grown without soil.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Planting vertically

When growing sideways isn't an option, try going upwards: hydroponic growing trays can be piled on top of one another, and plants can be grown more closely next to each than in the soil, making it very efficient in terms of space. As for what kind of space they can grow in, the sky is the limit: with no need for scarce farmland, one possibility could be to have hydroponic farms in skyscrapers.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

The downsides of hydroponics

Running a hydroponic farm can be complex, energy-intensive and expensive. Plants require many essential nutrients, and the farm needs a large amount of equipment. Heat and light, supplied for free by the sun in conventional farms, have to be provided artifically and paid for. And power failures could mean whole crops are destroyed if they go too long without water and light.

Feeding the world of the future: is hydroponics the answer?

Hydroponics on the rise

Hydroponics can theoretically be used to grow any crop, although the technique lends itself best to plants such as cucumbers, salad greens, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Given its long history, hydroponics still isn't widely used. But that looks set to change: the global hydroponic farming industry was estimated to be worth $21.2 billion in 2016. That's forecast to grow by 7 per cent each year.