Picking up the slack: Small island agriculture vs climate change

Cattle seek refuge from the searing heat among shrubbery in Union Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Cattle seek refuge from the searing heat among shrubbery in Union Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines                  Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

In the climate community we are all aware that developing countries feel the effect of climate change sometimes more heavily than developed countries. But what of Small Island developing states (SIDS)? Due to the miniscule stature of these nations we have little effect on the wider world and as a result we are forgotten. Apologies for being blunt but this is likely true. However what will the leaders of the wider world have to say in 2015 as the climate change issue is now heavily, albeit ironically affecting agriculture, our one and only food source?

A rundown of effects

“The most obvious felt consequence of climate change has been a rise in temperatures affecting poultry, dairy and pig industries and to a lesser extent on small ruminants,” explains Mr. Norman Gibson, Science Officer at the Caribbean Agriculture Research and Development Institute (CARDI) headquartered in Trinidad and Tobago. With regards to the poultry sector, adverse effects include higher mortality and morbidity (that is reduced productivity) though that industry’s structure is based entirely on imported inputs and production processes. Therefore the privately run Caribbean Poultry Association is primed to commit the necessary resources to combat the problem. On the other hand for the dairy sector, effects include reduced feed conversion and milk production.

Unfortunately rising temperatures are not the only effect being felt. “The fact is that we are losing our beaches, we are losing our reefs, we are losing our coastline and in some way we are losing our natural heritage,” the Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly stated. “I don’t want to sound depressive but we are losing the battle against climate change and coastal zone challenges,” as reported by local media. Rising tides and excessive wind have been pounding Caribbean shores for several years however a noticeable different was found on Tobago the even smaller sister isle of Trinidad. The same situation is occurring in the Bahamas. 

Meanwhile to the south east of Trinidad Sargassum seaweed has ‘suddenly’ found its way to the beaches of that part of the island. Researchers through the use of satellite from the University of Mississippi have indicated to representatives of the island’s Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) that the phenomenon stems from the coast of Brazil just off the north east of the Amazon rain forest. This floating seaweed moves with the sea current and is rapidly expanding. Of great concern is the seaweed has had on local fishermen on the affected coastal community. They are unable safely access their vessels without possibly damaging them and their livelihoods as a result. With this latest event it is clear that climate change is having a drastically negative effect on food production.

So then what’s the response?

A number of short term measures are being employed by farmers to reduce heat stress such as keeping animals under shade at all times during the day as well as bringing the food source to the animal or even allowing them to feed at night. On the other hand scientists are examining breeds that are adaptable to changing weather, particularly with ruminant livestock namely sheep and goats. Their aim is to develop local breeds rather than importing other types.

 The excessive heat is also affecting crop production as it caused drought like conditions. Therefore researchers are examining different cultivars and forage feed sources for livestock while water for farming of short term crops has been now regulated in some areas.

The Water and Sewage Authority (WASA) of Trinidad and Tobago facilitated a registration and licensing program. Thusly farmers who once may have used water for their lands indiscreetly must now secure their license as well as metering, pump and irrigation equipment via the local  Ministry of Land and Marine Resources to properly provide water to their lands with conservation in mind. This situation marks first time that water specific for agricultural supply has been regulated which leads to more efficient water management practices. Farmers must pay per gallon for the services however they are allowed to draw water from any natural source available.

As it relates to the seaweed issue, now that it has landed on the shores of Trinidad the IMA authorities are not exactly sure how to handle the situation. They advise that it can be cooked and eaten or used as soil fertilizer. However seaweed is not a major part of local cuisine and agronomist warn of the salinity found in the seaweed which may have an adverse effect of agri- production. In the meantime fishermen have no choice but to manually remove the seaweed themselves.

 Proactivity vs Hindsight

The effects of climate change on agriculture are clear. But to be honest we know they were coming…some of the effects at least! The Caribbean Drought & Precipitation Monitoring Network (CDPMN) has been working hard to gather appropriate data for the entire Caribbean as it relates to rising temperatures, drought like conditions and heat stress. They produce monthly reports in the Caribbean Drought Bulletin providing up-to-date news and information which at times is difficult to come by in the region. This Bulletin is just one part of a number of climate predication models and projects found under the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology. The organization works together with other organizations and national meteorological services to effectively gather data for the models and disseminate the resulting information.

This information along with other mitigation and adaption strategies should be made easily available to producers of every kind particularly in rural areas. A move towards climate smart agriculture which takes up a proactive effort in building resilience to climate related problems. Rather than wait for these issues to worsen, proactivity is clearly a better option. Currently the fluidity of knowledge and related information for climate smart agriculture is disjointed or limited in reach for unknown reasons.

At a two-day forum, organised by the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), climatologist Cèdric Van Meerbeec explained that “Temperatures are going to feel hotter than usual and that is pretty much throughout the Caribbean,” to a gathering of meteorologists, natural disaster managers and other stakeholders from 25 Caribbean countries and territories.

Now that it has been made clear by several authorities of the possibly disastrous nature of the climate situation, particularly in terms of agriculture and food production we await what measures both in response and for the future forecast will be put in place.

Written by Keron Bascombe
Agricultural Blogger and Writer
Blog: tech4agri.com   
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