Saturday, September 27, 2014

'Crazy' climate forces Colombian farmers to adapt

News24: Once upon a time, farming was a blissfully low-tech business on Colombia's northern plains. The lush tropical climate allowed rice farmers to harvest two or three times a year and protect their crops using little more than scarecrows and slingshots to fend off hungry birds. But recently, climate change has been sowing chaos in their fields.

...In less than a decade, the average minimum temperature for the region has risen 3°C, average relative humidity has shot up to a steamy 85% and rains have become increasingly erratic, alternating between deluge and drought. All that has taken a heavy toll on farmers.

Rice yields in Colombia have fallen from six tonnes per hectare to
five over the past five years because of climate fluctuations, according to national rice-growers' federation Fedearroz, which has 12 000 members. Decreasing yields is a country-wide problem for Colombia, which has 450 000Ha of rice fields and more than 200 towns and villages where growing rice is the main economic activity.

The slide in harvests comes at a delicate time. Under a trade deal with the United States, rice tariffs will be removed in five years in Colombia, a net rice importer. That means the country is likely to be flooded by cheap rice grown in the United States, where production costs are nearly half as much as they are in Colombia.

...Alarmed, two years ago the local office of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which sponsors research to improve farming practices worldwide, began analyzing crop-related data in Colombia on an unprecedented scale.

From weather forecasts to soil studies to solar radiation measurements, the group churned through numbers with cutting-edge software in a project dubbed "Big Data". It came up with a list of highly localized recommendations for farmers, particularly on the ideal windows for planting.

"Farmers can be reluctant to change the way they traditionally do things, especially when someone from the city comes and tells them what to do. But with climate change they've lost their bearings so they're in distress", said Sylvian Delerce, a French researcher who developed the project....

Flooded Colombian sugar cane fields, shot by CIAT, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons license 2.0

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