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Pacific: climate change threatens food security

Bolstering food systems to avoid dramatic economic losses

2 December 2008, Rome - Ocean warming, frequent tropical cyclones, flash floods and droughts are likely to have a devastating impact on food production systems in Pacific island countries, FAO warned today.

Climate change-related disasters are already imposing serious constraints on development in the islands, which appear to be in a "constant mode of recovery," according to a new report entitled Climate Change and Food Security in Pacific Island Countries, jointly published by FAO, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme and the University of the South Pacific.

"Climate projections for the Pacific island countries are bleak and indicate reduced food security, especially for households," said Alexander Müller, FAO Assistant Director-General, Natural Resources Management and Environment Department.

"It is critical to build resilience of food systems to avoid enormous future economic losses in agriculture, fisheries and forestry. Countries will have to assess how vulnerable their food systems are and how they can adapt agriculture, forestry and fisheries to future climate-related disasters. There is a need to act urgently," he added.

Climate change threats

Agricultural production in the Pacific island countries depends heavily on summer rains. Climate change predictions for the region suggest prolonged variations from normal rainfall with devastating effects on agriculture, including water stress, more pests and weeds, erosion and loss of soil fertility.

Increasing coastal inundation, salinization and erosion as a consequence of sea-level rise and human activities may contaminate and reduce the size of productive agricultural lands and thereby threaten household and local food security, the report said.

The projected sea-level rise and sea surface temperature changes will most likely result in the decline of fisheries productivity and food security. Most of the ecosystems on which coastal fisheries depend will be adversely affected. Fish consumption in Pacific island countries is very high, with an average of 70 kilogram per person per year. Fish exports account for as much as 70 percent of total exports in some countries.

Adapting to change

Pacific island countries have already committed to a number of international and regional agreements (UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol and the Pacific Plan) for addressing climate change impacts within the context of their sustainable development strategies. But overall, the report said, the response of Pacific island countries to climate change "can be described as being project-based, ad hoc and heavily dependant on external resources."

"Integrating climate change adaptation into national policies, strategies, programmes and budgets related to agriculture, forestry and fisheries, should become a major priority," Alexander Müller said.

The report calls for a more systematic approach to climate change, with national development plans serving as the basis of adaptation measures involving governments, the private sector and civil society. Pacific island countries need to review their agriculture, forestry, fisheries and drinking water development policies seriously, in light of new information on climate change.

Farmers should receive the best available information and guidelines on the choice of crop varieties, soil and water management options under changed environmental conditions to avert the risk of crop failures.

"Nations that have pushed for monoculture crop production for foreign markets will need to assess their food security potential. It is well established that diversified agricultural systems will fare better under climate change scenarios," the report said.