Climate Change Threatens Maize and Bean Farmers in Central America

Farmer Jenny Hodel holds freshly harvested corn in Roanoke, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. Corn output in the U.
Farmer Jenny Hodel holds freshly harvested corn in Roanoke, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. Corn output in the U.S., the world’s largest grower, will fall by less than analysts expected after the worst drought in more than 50 years, the government said. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By Paul Hicks

Climate change is real, and it is going to have real effects on real people in Central America. That is evident in a new report that for the first time takes a specific look at the impact of climate change on a local level.

"Tortillas on the Roaster" exposes the risks of climate change to the cultivation of maize and beans -- the two most-important food crops in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The report makes clear that in this area where it is already tough to make a living, it could get a lot tougher for a lot of people as higher temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns threaten the livelihoods of as many as a million maize and bean farmers.

Published by scientists at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), as part of a project led by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), this is the first study of its kind to make such highly specific, local-level predictions. It was funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

"Tortillas on the Roaster" shows that an expected average temperature increase of around 1 degree Celsius by 2020 will severely affect maize, exacerbating water shortages and causing the plants to suffer from heat stress. Large swaths of the current maize-growing area could become unsuitable for the crop, resulting in economic losses to the region as a whole of around USD $100 million per year.

Crucially for maize, the biggest losses will occur where there is already severe soil degradation, such as in parts of Honduras and throughout El Salvador, which could see production slump by about one-third in the next 10 years. Meanwhile, higher temperatures could extend the region's dry season, increasing the severity of the so-called "canicula," a dry spell which starts in July, clashing with a crucial stage in the maize production cycle.

For beans, there is a serious threat of reduced rains during the planting season in September, with higher temperatures affecting flowering and seed production, which could reduce yields in all four countries by as much as 25 percent. Meanwhile, the typically wet months of October and November are likely to see even more severe downpours, similar to those that destroyed crops and infrastructure in 2011. The report estimates maize and bean production losses at about USD $20 million per year by 2020, with likely knock-on effects as retail value chains, and regional and export markets take a hit.

The report highlights the importance of environmental management, finding that farmers who employ good soil management practices, for example, will be able to buffer the impacts of climate change, and produce a variety of lucrative crops. Those in marginal areas, with poorly managed farms will be forced to change their practices or leave agriculture all together.

The report also predicts that some areas, such as the western-central highlands of Guatemala, are expected to benefit from the warmer conditions, increasing the suitability of maize and beans production. But many of the areas expected to gain in crop suitability are in ecologically fragile zones, such as forests and wetlands.

Still, overall, about one million smallholder farmers and their families could be negatively affected across the four countries. But with decisive action from policymakers, the worst can be averted.

There is no quick fix. It's about getting back to basics. Extension services across the region need to be reinvigorated to train small farmers in soil and water management. And governments need to lead, they have the ability to make a real difference through setting climate-smart agricultural policies.

Better use of rainwater -- for example, through water harvesting systems -- together with improved soil management, crop diversification and the use of sustainable and so-called "climate-smart" approaches could help farmers do more than simply weather the storm.

But to avoid catastrophe in a region that can ill afford it, we cannot delay. We need to begin to take action now.

Paul Hicks is the Regional Coordinator, Global Water Initiative Central America, for Catholic Relief Services, based in El Salvador.

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