Better Climate Forecasting the Best Way to Protect Farmers

Wheat crop, India. (Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank/Flickr)

This week, we asked our Sustainability Roundtable about the growing concern that the world’s food supply is in serious danger over the long run. What can the developing and developed countries of Asia do to make their agricultural sector more resilient in the face of future climate shocks? How can these countries cope with a potentially crisis-inducing rise in food prices, growth in population, and increase in demand?

Dan Stellar serves as the Assistant Director for the Columbia Water Center, a program of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Lakis Polycarpou is Communications Coordinator at the Water Center, where he writes extensively on the global water crisis.

Global food prices are highly susceptible to climate shocks. In 2010, heat waves across Russia and China led to a significant increase in global wheat prices, along with corresponding ripple effects throughout entire commodities markets.

All of this highlights the need for greater investment in short- to medium-term climate forecasting, both in Asia and across the globe. In recent years, climatologists have come to a much better understanding of "quasiperiodic" global climate patterns such as El Nino/La Nina and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Recent research drawing connections between these patterns and the increased chance of extreme weather events, such as flooding or drought in a specific area, opens up new possibilities for managing risk in different ways. Improved medium-term forecasts can themselves decrease the effects of climate shocks by allowing famers and policy-makers to make better decisions at the beginning of a planting season.

In addition, better forecasting could allow insurers to spread risk and provide coverage to previously unprotected farmers. So called "index insurance," tying insurance policies to confirmable phenomena (such as El Nino/La Nina) rather than verified losses, can lower transaction costs substantially and makes such products more broadly affordable. Having insurance not only protects farmers from the downward spiral that arises after a catastrophic event, but it can also increase resiliency by encouraging the adoption of innovations that are more efficient, more productive or provide higher income.