Our Dinner Table, a Silent Victim of Climate Change

November 27, 2014


Farmer in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. 


Increasingly, Latin Americans are changing their diets to include grains that have survived soil degradation

Christopher Nolan’s recent box office hit, Interstellar, describes a future where only corn can be grown. The influence of human activity has altered the climate to the point that most grains cannot resist strong winds, rain or drought.

It is a science fiction movie, but the plot is not as far from reality as we might think.

Increasingly, Latin Americans are modifying their diets to include grains that have survived soil degradation or flooding, while another large segment no longer has the staple of their basic diet: the most recent drought in Central America put two million people at risk of starvation.

Climate variations can also leave many citizens without work. At a macroeconomic level, the impact is considerable: the agricultural sector employs nearly 20% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean and represents 21% of regional GDP.

Experts predict that the impact of climate change on the production of basic grains may be much worse than we imagined. In Argentina, for example, World Bank estimates indicate that farmers will lose US$ 2.5 billion in soy and corn crops due to climate change.

How can we understand this phenomenon? And more importantly, what alternatives do we have? WB agricultural expert, Diego Arias, discusses how climate change will affect what we eat and how we can mitigate its impact:

1. Not all climate shocks have the same impact

In the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico, hurricanes, tropical storms and windstorms are the climate events that most affect crops. Strong winds affect coconut and banana crops when the fruits fall from the trees, says Arias. Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily a hurricane that causes land losses, unless it produces a lot of rain.

Additionally, certain isolated events affect some inhabitants. According to Arias, “hail or a frost in a mountainous area may affect only a small group of people. In Latin America, there are many microclimates.”

2. Drought, the worst of all

Today, however, everyone agrees that drought poses the biggest threat in the region: from Central America to Brazil and Argentina, problems have arisen due to the lack of rain, says Arias.

According to the expert, drought does not occur for hours or days but rather occurs in stages over a period of months. The last drought in northeastern Brazil lasted for four years.  “By shifting from a marginal to an incremental form, drought does not call attention to itself until the situation is severe” says Arias “Early warning mechanisms are needed, different from those for floods or hurricanes.”

3. The poor are on the front lines

In the scenarios described above, the poor may suffer income losses. If production decreases, food costs rise. “Many farmers who sell their crops at the market benefit because they take advantage of that price; however, studies indicate that, for example, droughts increase poverty levels” tells Arias.

 “Countries such as Paraguay or Nicaragua suffer the most direct impact because they have many subsistence households. This differs from the structure of small-scale farm households in Argentina or in southern Brazil, which sell most of what they grow,” says the expert. “Because they cannot produce, these rural families have nothing to eat and in addition they have to buy foods at higher prices. It is a double shock for them. They are the first ones that need help.”

" Countries such as Paraguay or Nicaragua suffer the most direct impact because they have many subsistence households.  "

Diego Arias

WB agricultural expert

4. The consequences of climate change can be prevented

According to Arias, governments currently have two risk management mechanisms. One is to mitigate the event before it occurs: better irrigation systems, teaching farmers how to set up better drainage systems for their plots, and investing in research for drought-resistant seeds and plants that consume less water, for example.

The second response is through the allocation of emergency resources, which are commonly used in the region. When there is a drought or flood, extraordinary and emergency funds are allocated to help the most vulnerable, poorest citizens. However, this is not always effective. “Emergency resources in general arrive late; they are insufficient to compensate for losses and distribution is often not objective,” says Arias. “Additionally, they create a disincentive for adopting the improved practices in which the government is investing.”

5. Losses can be avoided

“The climate is changing. And today, those events that already cause significant losses and have an impact on poverty are becoming increasingly frequent and more intense,” says Arias. “There is a need to restructure prior emergency aid. The farmer needs to know what he will receive, when he will receive it and to plan before the event.”

To that end, Arias refers to a conditional cash transfer program for the agricultural sector called Procampo in México. In that program, the farmer receives US$ 100 per hectare, a payment that enables him to restructure and diversify his production.  “When natural disasters occur, the payment is increased. This provides reinforcement during emergencies,” he says.

Financial swaps are another tool. For example, when there is an excess of rain that affects the city, farmers benefit because they fill their water reservoirs. In that case, resources from a program that benefits rural areas are then transferred to one that benefits the community.

Additionally, the governments of Mexico, Peru and Brazil offer agricultural insurance for catastrophic events to protect the most vulnerable rural households, an option that is also available to farmers.