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Scientists: Climate Change Could Affect World Food Supply

15 October 2007
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Scientists are predicting there could be a global food crisis in this century if climate change continues unabated. VOA's Jeff Swicord reports.

Buddy Hanse
Buddy Hance

Buddy Hance has been farming on land south of Washington, D.C., his entire life. He is also deputy secretary of agriculture for the state of Maryland.

"The corn we are harvesting will go to feed the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore of Maryland," he said.

But this year's crop of corn is falling far short of normal yields. "We have had a lot of difficulties in the weather in this crop," added Hance.  "We were very dry earlier."

Maryland and much of the eastern United States was in a severe drought all summer long.  Hance says his normal yield is 260 bushels of corn per hectare.  This year, he estimates he will only yield 30 bushels.

"The kernels are a little smaller," he says.  "You know, the cob is a lot shorter than it would usually be.  Normally the cob would be ten or eleven inches [25 to 27 centimeters] long and fatter.  There is less rows of corn on this cob then there would be in a good year."

Heat wave means more drought
Heat wave means more drought
There is no scientific evidence to link this year's drought to climate change.  However, the drought shows how a change in the weather can affect food supply.

A study released by the Center for Global Development shows that climate change could cause global food production to decline from 5 to 20 percent by the year 2080, and even higher in some countries.

"Something like 30 to 40 percent in India for example, and something like 20 percent or more in Africa and Latin America," said study author William Cline.

Maryland's Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States.  More than 250 species of fish and shellfish live in these waters.  Some, like blue crabs and stripped bass, are highly prized food sources. U.S. government statistics show that food yields from the bay have been in decline in recent years, mostly due to water pollution and over fishing. 

At the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the bay's Eastern Shore, there is evidence that climate change is affecting the spawning and nursery areas for finfish and crabs.  More than 3,000 hectares of marshland are now underwater due to sea-level rise.

Dixie Birch with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says studies have been done that link the sea level rise to climate change.

"The marsh areas, the wetland areas, are important to provide habitat for everything all the way up to the birds and even humans, because we consume the crabs and the fish that are taken out of these waters," she said. 

Birch says the sea level in the bay will continue to rise, and that will further erode the bay's food production. "We would lose the numbers of blue crabs and the fishery resources the folks depend on like flounder and snapper and other species," she adds.

Buddy Hance says farmers in the U.S. will be able to adapt to climate change.  That may not be the case with other subsistence farming communities in the developing world.  The Center for Global Development says food production will need to increase in the next half century to keep up with the rise in population.

"There are crops that you could grow that don't have the water requirements that corn has - hay and sorghum and soybeans," he says. "And you learn to adjust to things."

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