Betting on the Rains

By Caitlin Kopcik

Rising global food prices and favorable rainfall patterns in recent decades have allowed farmers in South America’s Southern Cone region to grow crops on formerly marginal lands. But if climate patterns shift and the rains start to fail, the region could face devastating losses in its economy, livelihoods and infrastructure.

The IRI is working with local partners to characterize the climatic variability of the region and to take actions that will allow people in these marginal lands to be more resilient to climate-related risks.

The countries of Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay, also known as South America’s Southern Cone, have seen a major agricultural shift over the past 20 years. The region has become one of the most important producers of staple crops feeding a growing population: corn, wheat and soybeans (see graph). Rising global food prices have provided economic incentive for farmers to focus production on these crops to much success. Demand has also led farmers to cultivate large areas of “frontier” land–traditionally used only for raising livestock due to climate and land conditions rendering it unsuitable for agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 25 million hectares of frontier lands were converted to agriculture between 1965 and 2005. Despite having been beneficial to farmers thus far, such changes bring to question the conditions that have allowed this shift to happen.

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“In the western region of the Argentinian Pampas, for example, there are areas that didn’t get enough rainfall to support crops in the 1950s and 1960s. But throughout the later quarter of the 20th century, rainfall during the spring and summer increased, and these places are now able to sustain annual crops,” says Walter Baethgen, the head of IRI’s Latin America regional program. The ability for farmers to plant crops and expand this frontier clearly has been facilitated by increases in precipitation. What is less clear is the duration of such changes.

“Are these precipitation patterns part of a multidecadal cycle or a permanent, long-term trend? This is of grave importance to the future of farmers in the Southern Cone,” Baethgen says. Such uncertainties aren’t limited to changing precipitation, however. The frontier soils are often already marginal, characterized by low fertility and high erosion risks- adding another element of fragility to an already tenuous future.

Baethgen and colleagues from the National Agricultural Research Institutes of the Southern Cone, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA-PROCISUR) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), have been awarded funding from Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Initiative (SECCI) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), to assess the vulnerability of these changes in the agricultural frontier.

“This project could be considered a platform to identify new ways to help the farmers and society of a crucial world region in reducing the vulnerability of food production in the years to come,” says Roberto Diaz a senior researcher from Uruguay’s Instituto Nacional de Investigacion Agropecuaria (INIA), who is collaborating with Baethgen on the project.

The joint research will compile and examine the climate history of the Southern Cone over the past 80 years to understand how it has varied across decades and how it can possibly vary in the future. By studying how climate change can alter rainfall, researchers have a better understanding of the nature and magnitude of the current and future risks that threaten farming and other livelihoods in the region. “We can then see what technologies, production systems and water resource management practices are available to people there that can help reduce those risks,” Baethgen says.

In a separate Fontagro (also IDB) funded project, IRI will be working with the same national agricultural research institutes of the region, IICA-PROCISUR and the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) to improve the seasonal climate forecasts available for the Southern Cone. In identifying ways in which forecasts and other climate-relevant information can assist water management decision making, the project seeks to provide information and tools to improve water use efficiency (including irrigation) throughout the region under the threats of a changing climate.

Caitlin Kopcik is a student in the Climate and Society master’s program at Columbia. In partial completion of her degree, she will be interning with Americas regional office of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre located in Panama, with a focus on increasing their ability to access, interpret and utilize available information on climate-related risks.