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Agricultural time travel: adapting through ‘climate analogues’

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We often talk about the impacts global warming could have on agricultural production, and researchers have spent plenty of time exploring models in order to pin down threats to particular crops in specific countries or regions. Now agricultural scientists at the United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa, have unveiled a new tool that could allow farmers to move beyond models and peer into their physical future.

It’s a simple idea. Data from global climate models tell us something about how our climate might evolve and what a given area might look and feel like in 20 years, but what does that mean in terms of agricultural practices? Researchers with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have converted all of that data into a kind of searchable database that can be used to compare climate and other agricultural data across time and space. Farmers, governments and researchers in one region can look at their future climate projections and then explore today’s world looking for regional “climate analogues” that are comparable.

In the example illustrated above, a soya farmer outside Shanghai could look to their colleagues in the United States, Argentina or even here in South Africa. In theory, this could help demystify things a bit by providing real-world information about seed varieties, techniques and technologies that might come in useful in the years to come. “It’s about information management,” says Andy Jarvis, an agricultural modeller who led the work under CGIAR’s new research program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

The online tool is based on open-source software and can be accessed here. The work is also documented in a new report (available in PDF form here), and some details about the methodology can be found on an earlier blog post here.

In the coming months, Jarvis and his colleagues plan to carry the experiment forward by transporting some farmers from their present day environments in Tanzania, Ghana and Nepal into some of their possible future environments. For now, these farmer exchanges are within individual countries, but researchers are already considering international exchanges in the future.

In theory, the exchanges could help scientists explore possible cultural or technological barriers that might prevent farmers from adopting new practices or perhaps even entirely new crops that are better suited to a warmer world. Given that the tool can be adjusted to run on different emissions scenarios as well as individual models used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s last assessment, scientists can also use the tool to probe their own models as well as nagging questions about uncertainty.

Here again, Jarvis says it might turn out that seemingly significant differences among models might fade into insignificance among farmers as they explore different options for how best to improve their operations in the coming decades. “My hypothesis going into this is that farmers are far more adaptive than we give them credit for,” Jarvis says.


As discussed in our earlier coverage (see Summit urged to clean up farming), many researchers and advocates are pushing negotiators to create an agricultural “work program” within the climate negotiations. The idea has been around for a few years and is in a sense modeled after the deforestation track that was established four years ago in Bali, Indonesia. If advocates are successful, negotiators would begin the likely long process of investigating ways to craft solutions targeted at agriculture within the context of the broader negotiations. Nature interviews two proponents of the idea below.

Gerald Nelson of the International Food Policy Research Institute, speaking about agriculture in the climate negotiations.

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda heads the Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, based in here in Pretoria. She is talking about the same issues, but from a different perspective.

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