The climate scientist and the teacher

From Naudet, J (2000) Finding Problems to Fit the Solutions: Twenty Years of Aid to the Sahel, OECD Publishing, Paris
From Naudet, J (2000) Finding Problems to Fit the Solutions: Twenty Years of Aid to the Sahel, OECD Publishing, Paris

Laurent Bossard, Director, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

In the second of the SWAC/OECD Secretariat’s West African Papers series (“Climate Impacts in the Sahel and West Africa: The Role of Climate Science in Policy Making”), Carlo Buontempo and Kirsty Lewis of the Met Office UK consider the role climate science plays in policy making.

I had thought about calling this blog: “Don’t leave climate change policy solely to climate scientists!”. After all, the authors themselves stress that climate scientists are not necessarily fully equipped to identify what the key components of climate and climate change are in relation to a population’s needs. In the end, I resisted the temptation because I sincerely admire this profession whose daunting task it is to help us build a better future for the planet.

The question is: “how can the terabytes of data generated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate models be of use to African farmers?”. If a farmer is asked what they need, their reply will probably be for more accurate and local short-term weather forecasts to ensure that their seeds are sown at the right time. It would seem therefore that a distinction has to be made between meteorologists – who are likely to cater to the farmer’s request – and climate scientists.

The authors of this paper remind us that climate change is not just about a change in climate towards hotter, wetter, and drier conditions, but also about an increase in the variability of the climate, as well as in the number and severity of extreme events. So yes, it would be very useful to provide more accurate weather forecasts but, for all this, the need to factor in the structural dynamics associated with climate change would remain unaddressed.  Helping farmers to anticipate these dynamics and manage risk is what a “climate service” should be able to offer its African users.

Everybody seems to agree on this issue but the “how” is apparently still far from being resolved. The argument developed in this paper is that agricultural and rural communities should be listened to in order to understand how the “climate factor” fits in with their specific problems, opportunities and prospects.  The climate factor does not, therefore, replace all other issues faced by African farmers, but is an addition to them. The climate factor could thus be of central importance or less relevant, a triggering or aggravating mechanism, all depending on the context. As a result, importance should be placed upon defining the issues and asking the right questions.

I believe this message is important because it reminds us of the importance of the “human factor”. Back in 1967, a teacher named Lédéa-Bernard Ouedraogo, from Yatenga province in what is now Burkina Faso, decided to create a  “Naam group” in his village –  an adaptation of the traditional Mossi community association called Kombi-Naam, or “power to young people”. A form of agricultural and environmental cooperative, the Naam was constructed on the following five pillars which define its actions: its members, what they know, what they experience, what they know how to do and what they want. Accordingly, the Naam creates projects which are tailored to the environment, which meet the needs of its members and which are achievable. It is, in essence, a tool which promotes and develops local expertise.

The initiative has now spread throughout Yatenga province and the entire country. The National Federation of Naam Groups now comprises over 5 000 groups and over 600 000 members. Building on the Naam network, Lédéa Bernard Ouedraogo was one of the creators of the 6S Association (“Savoir se servir de la saison sèche en savane et au Sahel”) in 1976. The National Federation of Naam Groups and the 6S Association formed the basis for disseminating straightforward, effective techniques for what is now known as “climate smart” agriculture. As a result, we see that areas where climate scientists might once have said crops could no longer grow because of a lack of rain, are now using “Zaï” (30cm in diametre micro-basins scattered throughout the fields) and “boulis” (small catchments for storing water run-off).

During the 1980s when Niger’s Maradi region was severely affected by aridification, farmers had the idea of allowing trees to grow naturally in their fields. These trees help to protect against wind and soil erosion, enrich the soil with the manure of animals taking refuge in their shade, and limit temperature and evaporation, and thus effectively reduce the need for water.  According to the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, “assisted natural regeneration” has made it possible to regenerate hundreds of thousands of hectares of land not only in Niger but also in Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.

The IPCC did not exist in the 1970s and early 1980s and when I read this paper, I wondered what the teacher and the climate scientist might have said to one another had they met in Yatenga. I believe that such an encounter between the science of mathematical models and the science of traditional knowledge would have been mutually beneficial and that the need to further co-ordinate efforts between disciplines, sectors and other fields of development is becoming increasingly essential.

Useful notes

OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC)

OECD Work on climate change

Why biodiversity matters

Mass murderer

In 1845, Belgian farmers discovered, too late, that a load of seed potatoes they had bought from America was contaminated with Phytophthora infestans, a Mexican fungus that had recently spread northwards. The blight caused by P. infestans rapidly spread from Belgium all over the continent, triggering the European potato famine. In Ireland, 1 million people out of a population of 8 million died of starvation and its side-effects, and another million emigrated. Social, economic and political reasons help explain why the country was so badly affected, but the main cause was that a third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food.

The Irish famine is a stark lesson in what happens when monoculture goes wrong, and why the resilience biodiversity brings is important to agriculture. But as we celebrate International Biodiversity Day, the outlook is not very encouraging. Around 12% of birds, 25% of mammals, and at least 32% of amphibians are threatened with extinction over the next century. Humans may have increased the rate of global extinctions by up to 1000 times the “natural” rate typical of Earth’s long-term history.

Plants used for food have been hard hit. Although humans ate around 10,000 plant species in the past, today’s diet is based on just over 100 plant species, a dozen of which represent 80% of human consumption, and four of which (rice, wheat, maize and potatoes) provide more than half of our energy requirements.

China has lost 90% of the wheat varieties it had 60 years ago. The US has lost over 90% of the fruit tree and vegetable varieties it had at the start of the 20th century. Mexico has lost 80% of its corn varieties, India 90% of its rice varieties. In Spain, the number of melon varieties has gone down from nearly 400 in the early 1970s to a dozen.

Biodiversity in itself is not the key to the production, recycling and other services ecosystems provide. What matters is the abundance of the species that are critical in maintaining habitat stability and providing those services. At a local scale, the loss of a species may have an adverse impact on ecosystem services, even if that species is not threatened globally.

In OECD countries agricultural land is a major primary habitat for certain populations of wild species, particularly certain species of birds and insects, in particular butterflies. For nearly all OECD countries, agricultural land area has decreased since the 1990s. Farmland has been converted to use for forestry and urban development, with much smaller areas converted to wetlands and other land uses. While little quantitative information about the biodiversity implications of converting farmland to forestry is available, the high rates of clearance of native vegetation for agricultural use in some countries are damaging biodiversity.

Biodiversity loss can have significant economic costs, but often they are indirect and longer term, while the benefits of the action that causes the loss are more immediate and measurable. For example, clearing mangroves to make room for shrimp farms raises incomes, but mangroves are important natural coastal defences, and the new farms, and the land behind them, are then exposed to destructive flooding that climate change could make even worse.

Most ecosystem services are externalities, meaning their benefits are not bought and sold commercially. This makes it hard to use market mechanisms to protect biodiversity, and governments have to take the lead. Most OECD countries and many others have implemented conservation programmes designed to protect and enhance the populations of endangered livestock breeds, and the number of breeds included under these programmes is increasing. Greater efforts are underway to conserve plant genetic resources useful for crop improvement.

There are also some multilateral initiatives to address biodiversity issues, including the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, also known as the International Seed Treaty. This is a comprehensive international agreement in harmony with Convention on Biological Diversity, designed to guarantee food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use of the world’s plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, as well as the fair and equitable benefit sharing arising from its use.

Could a tragedy similar to the Irish famine happen again? Traditional threats to crop production are either acute and of relatively short duration, such as extreme weather events. Chronic threats such as desertification or urban sprawl develop slowly. Strategies for dealing with these exist or are being developed. However, a new disease affecting a major food crop (such as rice), that appeared suddenly, spread easily and resisted known treatments could pose a serious threat if it persisted over a few growing seasons. New viruses and other pathogens appear all the time spontaneously. The vast majority of them die out immediately. Occasionally though, a strain that may have been around for centuries mutates and takes advantage of present day conditions. This is probably what HIV did, and as we discussed last week, recent years have seen the sudden emergence of potentially catastrophic viruses.

Lack of alternatives to infected species and the high mobility of people and goods enabled the 19th century potato blight to spread, and both of these factors are much stronger today.

Useful links

Economics and policies for biodiversity: OECD’s response

Biodiversity Chapter of the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction “Globally, terrestrial biodiversity(measured as mean species abundance – or MSA – an indicator of the intactness of a natural ecosystem) is projected to decrease a further 10% by 2050.”

Environmental journalist Simran Sethi explains what she thinks we all can do to ensure the security and sovereignty of our seed and food: