Climate change: Diversity the mother of invention?

Our man with the factor 30 sunscreen and the big umbrella writes:

Climate change is the new black. Everyone’s talking about, if you haven’t experienced it, well frankly you haven’t lived. We’ve heard this week that 39% of the world will have novel climates in 2100 (via Eco-Justice Blog). The concept of “novel” climates is a little abstract, but the authors of the study did a good job of bringing attention to the fact that new solutions are needed to adapt to climate change. It’s not always just a question of transferring existing technologies and practices. Without alienating the good people who invited me to write this, I’m afraid that for these areas conventional crop improvement of some of the hardiest crops is perhaps the most rational means of confronting this. (No alienation here: Ed.) Either that or give up on agriculture in these regions and intensify in the less affected regions.

But the study leaves 61% of climates where change is predicted, but to a climate already found currently on the earth. That’s a calming thought, as long as of course we have faith in the conventional climate models and hope the doomsday scenarios don’t come true. This opens up a world of opportunities for agricultural biodiversity, where an eternal optimist like me could even think something good might come of it. After all, adversity is the mother of invention. Perhaps the building blocks for agriculture adapted to the Brazilian cerrados will come from landraces used by farmers from the Sahel belt in Niger.

What do we need to do?

We need to get out of the abstract paradigm that we’ve constructed of ex situ collections, leading to crop breeding of blanket solutions, followed by a less than optimal delivery of new seed technologies. Farmers have exchanged seeds informally for millennia, and the rich diversity of landraces is testament to the fact that this works, especially in the face of change. We need to go back a hundred years, and direct all our 21st century advances in international diplomacy and treaties, communication technologies and truly use our ex situ collections to redeploy diversity and stimulate a diversification of agricultural systems.

Why? Well for starters studies point to climate change impacts being highly localized. To over-simplify, deploying a new seed technology across an entire region would result in improved adaptation for some, but a failure to capitalize on an opportunity for others. Of course, that’s the flip side of diversity: how to avoid sub-optimal use of diversity? How can we help a farmer to use the most adapted seed, maximizing the opportunity without being over-exposed to risk? Plenty of valid research questions.

Of course, we need to do a lot more and diversity is unfortunately not capable of confronting climate change alone. But I’m interested to hear ideas of how we might operationalise the redeployment of agrobiodiversity, especially in marginal areas.

From Andy Jarvis. If you have ideas, leave a comment.

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Wiki on climate change and biodiversity

We have been contacted by David Wiedenfeld with news of a wiki-style site with the objective of aggregating information about biodiversity conservation and climate change. It will mainly focus on wild biodiversity, but material on agricultural biodiversity will be welcome. You can find David’s wiki here. Sounds like a great idea, good luck with it!

Climate change and extinction

Predicting the effects of climate change on biodiversity is very much a growth industry, and understandably so. I’ve contributed to it myself (together with lots of friends), as I immodestly noted here in a previous posting. Many studies have predicted drastic increases in rates of extinctions, but then, why have so few species gone extinct during the past 2.5 millions years of recurring ice ages? This “Quaternary conundrum” is addressed in a new paper announced, and available for downloading, here. The conclusion of the 19 co-authors is that current approaches do not adequately take into account the factors which allow species to persist when conditions change for the worse. They make eight recommendations for improving predictions, ranging from better models to better validation of model results. Well worth reading.

Climate change and wine

Over at CABI’s blog there’s a great post summarizing some recent research on the possible effects of climate change on the wine industry. The grapevine is very sensitive to temperature and rainfall, making it a useful indicator of environmental change. Predictably, there will be both winners and losers among the traditional wine growing areas. Not quite sure how the average consumer will come out of it, but wine bores will have a whole new area of expertise to get to grips with.

Assisted migration

Would you move a species threatened by climate change to an area where it isn’t currently found but where the new climate suits it better? That’s “assisted migration,” and the lively debate around it is described by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times here. He quotes a thorough review of the ecological and evolutionary responses to climate change which may be found online as a pdf here. It seems to me that assisted migration is likely to be feasible for only a small number of wild species, but what about crops? Making threatened crops and landraces available to farmers in more suitable climates sounds like a pretty good idea to me.