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02 December 2011

‘Changing climate impacts food security’

An environmental activist paints a banner during a demonstration outside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties meeting (COP17) in Durban.

South Africa used to be a big exporter of deciduous fruits.

Apples, pears, all destined for Europe.

But that’s changing now, and scientists are pointing to our changing climate.

“It's no longer possible for many of those areas to continue to produce those fruits,” said Dr Bob Scholes of the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Speaking at a presentation on the link between climate change and food security on Thursday, Scholes explained that the fruit trees need a chilling period in winter if they are to flower properly. But with temperatures in South Africa rising, this chilling period was not quite chill enough and the trees were no longer producing fruit.

Rising temperatures have also left Karoo sheep infected with diseases usually only found in tropical regions, while increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are changing ecosystems as trees encroach on grasslands.

Now, scientists are calling on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to assist research into the effects of climate change on agriculture - and how it can be countered.

In South Africa, food security is enshrined in the Constitution. But that doesn't mean it's secure, said Dr Sikhalazo Dube of the Agricultural Research Council .

An increase into urban areas has increased pressure on cities to provide food, while the scourge of HIV/Aids has impacted on the ability of an active population to produce food.

Enter climate change. Over the next few decades, temperatures will continue to rise in South Africa. Rainfall will drop.

Despite this, a slight increase in yield is expected due to improving technologies. But this will be outstripped by the demand.

“We are already a slight importer of maize,” said Dube. “But we will become a major importer of maize, which will become more expensive with time.”

He predicts the same scenario for wheat.

Local adaptation will be crucial, but scientists first need the funding to research it.

“A lot of help is offered to small-scale farmers by the government, but it's not linked to scientific knowledge,” Dube said.

“We really need support in researching these adaptation strategies.”

- The Star