October 29, 2014

Agriculture and Climate Change: The State of Ecosystems and Human Systems in the Tropics

Sarina Katz, EcoAgriculture Partners

Biodiversity and food insecurity in the tropics

The 3rd International Conference on Biodiversity and the UN Millennium Development Goals (entitled Biodiversity and Food Security – From Trade-offs to Synergies) is currently underway in France. The conference serves as a platform to discuss the loss of biodiversity at all levels and food security challenges caused by population growth, poverty, globalization, and a changing climate. This conference also echoes the recently published State of the Tropics report, which focuses on both the ecosystems and human systems of the tropics, an area where biodiversity is high and considered incredibly vulnerable.

Between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn lies the tropics, a region of the world that includes approximately 134 countries—40 percent of the world’s surface—and 40 percent of Earth’s population. Importantly, the tropics are also home to nearly 80 percent of global terrestrial biodiversity. For millennia, people have made this part of the world their home, adapting their techniques and traditions to match the rich climate and resources across landscapes that range from tropical savannas and deserts, to rainforests and coral reefs.

Anticipated impacts of climate change in the tropics

Climate change will significantly affect this diverse region of the world in years to come. For example, there is a predicted loss of agricultural area and reduced productivity in Northern Africa and the Middle East, as well as a risk of desertification of agricultural land in the Caribbean and Central America. In addition to a changing climate, this area has also seen drastic social and economic change. Over the past fifty years, the tropics have experienced decolonization, democratization, and at times civil war and genocide. And, while these nations are primarily categorized as developing, tropical economies are growing 20 percent faster than the rest of the world. With such a rapid transformation, the State of the Tropics report aims to answer this simple question: is life in the tropics getting better?

To this end,  Australia’s James Cook University, in collaboration with several other leading institutions from around the world, took a closer look at what it calls the ecosystems and human systems of the region in producing this year’s State of the Tropics report. It provides an in-depth assessment of this region, exploring and evaluating progress made on national, regional, and global scales. For the purpose of this assessment, progress was defined as “an increase in the sustainable and equitable well-being of a society;” it is noteworthy to mention that this study was multidimensional, drawing on the knowledge of those living within the tropics to better understand how to proceed towards a prosperous and sustainable future.

A farmer in Dak Lak, Vietnam, feeds her cows with improved forages.

A farmer in Dak Lak, Vietnam, feeds her cows with improved forages. Photo: Georgina Smith / CIAT on Flickr

Current state of tropical agriculture

Since 1960, cultivated area has increased by only 10 percent, while production has almost doubled. Although the increase in production has not largely compromised the state of rainforests and natural preserves, environmental costs do exist. Between the years 1981 to 2003, nearly a third of tropical land became degraded, with South East Asia experiencing even higher rates of over 50 percent. The majority of degradation is caused by wind and water erosion, soil acidification, and an overall loss of soil fertility; the report notes that water erosion is the primary cause, which increased in recent years due to deforestation and poor agricultural practices.

Unsustainable agriculture—including the threat of water scarcity and its role in irrigation, as well as the use of non-organic fertilizers—is a major area of concern. Degradation plays a key role in tropical countries’ economic and social poverty. Subsistence and small-scale farmers are particularly affected as drought and crop failures lead to financial crises. And despite the worlds’ increase in food production, real food prices are actually increasing, perpetuating the cycle of poverty for much of the tropics.

With a greater understanding regarding agriculture and land use within the tropics, a response to the report’s question can begin to be formulated. Despite the growing concerns of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and land degradation, the state of agriculture in the tropics is looking up. Actions have been taken to mitigate agriculture’s negative climate effects, spurred by a majority of tropical countries signing the original Kyoto Protocol and the subsequent extension agreed upon in Doha in 2012. The report also notes an increase in research pertaining to fertilizers and machinery efficiency. Most importantly, the report argues for the creation of “mechanisms that value natural ecosystems” and the potential these systems have in assisting the sustainable development of the tropics.

For those living in this region, the threat of global climate change is very real and is already affecting their livelihoods in many significant ways. This report offers a glimpse into a future where sustainable and innovative practices have been adopted, highlighting sustainable agricultural techniques that will preserve the biodiversity of the region and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers across the region. Organic agriculture, for example, has the potential to open new markets, improve wages, and protect the land. The state of the tropics, it seems, is improving, and will continue to do so in years to come if the proper mechanisms are quickly adopted and implemented.

What mechanisms and research have you encountered that encourage sustainable agriculture in the tropics? Join the discussion in the comments section below.

Read more

Download the 2014 State of the Tropics Report

Sarina Katz holds dual degrees in International Relations and History from Penn State University. Her interest in sustainability began with her work on campus-wide environmental campaigns combined with her time on an organic family farm in Costa Rica. 

Top Photo: Georgina Smith / CIAT on Flickr

More From Sarina Katz


  • Rupert Knowles
    November 4, 2014 at 11:37am

    I think that sustainable development is best achieved through promotion in the private sector. There are many ‘good’ companies around that can achieve this. By cultivating them and ensuring that their thinking and models reflect best current practice, local agriculture and allied industries will prosper. See this link about the work of Blue Skies in Ghana: http://www.theworldfolio.com/news/revolutionizing-agribusiness-in-ghana/3309/

  • V. Balasubramanian
    October 29, 2014 at 6:13pm

    Water is the most critical resource for agriculture. Depletion and pollution of surface waters, overuse and poor recharging of groundwater, and salinization of coastal water are all constraining agriculture and livelihoods in many countries. Climate change induced abiotic stresses like prolonged drought, erratic rainfall (especially heavy rains at harvest time), floods and tropical storms are the greatest threats to farming in the tropics. Improved technologies work at the field and farm level only. What we need is the organization and empowerment of farmers and public-private partnership to work with local governments to restore landscapes and common resources like watersheds, rivers and streams, wetlands and lakes and ponds, system of irrigation and drainage, and equitable sharing and management of groundwater as a public resource to prevent over-exploitation are all critical for improving sustainability in tropical farming.