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Sustainability is Key to Fight World's Food Crisis Amid Drought, Floods

Practices in sustainability offer a glimpse of hope amid a severe world hunger crisis brought on most predominately by severe weather events.

"Sustainable agriculture enables us to feed our growing population while protecting the environment, human health, rural communities and animal welfare," Chris Hunt, director of Grace Communications Foundation's Food Program, said.

Sustainable agriculture is not only defined by what crops are produced, but also how they are produced and the impact they have on the world. According to the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform, sustainable agriculture is "the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species."

When severe weather culminates in droughts, agriculture absorbs up to 84 percent of all economic impacts, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Floods and other agriculturally devastating events also cause up to 39 percent of total agricultural production losses.

"These events can destroy crops, degrade soils, deprive plants of resources necessary for growth and otherwise interfere with effective production," Hunt said. "In general though, sustainable agricultural systems are more resilient, and thus better equipped to endure extreme weather than industrial agricultural systems."

According to a recent study conducted by the FAO, nearly a quarter of all damages caused by natural disasters such as droughts, floods or tsunamis are felt by the agriculture sector. Worldwide, 2.5 billion people rely on agriculture for survival, most of them in areas of Africa and Asia that are considered to be stricken with poverty and devastating environmental damages.

As the climate changes, severe weather events that contribute to the world hunger crisis may become more prominent or more severe, according to Jeff Hayward, climate expert for Rainforest Alliance.

"We are looking at a number of potential stresses in the growing system brought on by climate change, and some of them can be pretty significant for farmers," Hayward said.

The first major concern, according to Hayward, is temperature change. Some crops, such as coffee and certain citrus fruits, can grow successfully only within a narrow range of temperatures. If temperatures increase or decrease too much outside of the normal range, the potential growing area can become constricted and farmers may be unable to continue growing the crops on which they built their livelihood.

"Temperature changes can also really affect the way a plant performs, like how well it grows and how much yield you get from the fruit," Hayward said. "It is also possible that increasing temperatures can increase pests and diseases, as well as affect some aspects of how plants reproduce, such as periods of flowering and ripening."

Changes in climate can also cause large fluctuations in rainfall patterns, which can be very difficult for farmers to plan around. Droughts can severely damage crops and increase the risk of natural disasters, such as wildfires. This year in the United States, the Midwest drought severely damaged corn crops, and the drought in California affected several important crops such as rice, Hayward explained.

"In most of the countries that we work with, poor farmers do not have the same ability to dig wells and bring groundwater up, so they rely mainly on rainfall for irrigation," Hayward said. "So if rainfall patterns change, it can be really difficult for them since they are depending almost entirely on rain for the growth of crops."

Conversely, if an area receives too much rainfall, flooding can also cause significant damage and unmanageable nutrient run-off. Sustainable practices that allow farmers to deal with these fluctuations are rain-capturing techniques such as water harvesting, irrigation and drainage structures. According to Hayward, these techniques "allow the water to be pulled up and utilized when it is needed and stored when it is not."

Another potential danger of nutrient run-off, as well as changing rainfall patterns and temperatures, is soil degradation. Global awareness of the importance of soil is a primary goal of 2015 and is why this year has been named the International Year of Soils. The FAO estimates that there is a 33 percent global level of soil degradation, which has the potential to threaten food security and increase poverty rates around the world.

"Soils are essential for achieving food security and nutrition and have the potential to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change," Moujahed Achouri, Director of FAO's Land and Water Division said in a news article.

There are many sustainable practices that can help keep soils moist and reduce erosion through times of drought and severe weather. Using cover crops, certain grasses or small bushes, mulch or additional shade trees can help reduce soil temperature and reduce the amount of moisture that evaporates.

"While it is a sector at risk, agriculture can also be the foundation upon which we build societies that are more resilient and better equipped to deal with disasters," said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.