Corn and bean stocks to decline with changing climate in Central America
Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Beans and corn -- the staples of the Central American diet -- will become more difficult to grow as climate change progresses, according to a new study.
In a land where tortillas and frijoles dominate meals, this spells trouble. Poor soil quality in the region leaves crops vulnerable to erratic rain patterns driven by climate change.
As the climate changes, the timing of rains will become more of a problem than total rainfall, said Anton Eitzinger, a climate scientist with the Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
"There's enough water available during the year, but you have half of the year as a drought and the other half [as floods]. The rain is not well-distributed," he said.
The two crops are usually planted in the same fields, one season after the other. Corn is sown in the first planting season from May to July, then harvested in the fall. In the second planting season, beans are sown in September and harvested at the end of the calendar year. Dried post-harvest cornstalks provide a pole upon which beans can grow, and beans fix nitrogen in the soil to aid corn.
The dry season in the summer is the riskiest period in a changing climate, the report finds. If the dry season -- known as the "canicula" -- is especially arid, begins earlier or ends later than usual, it could affect critical growing periods for both corn and beans.
Potential economic shock
Certain "hot spots" that are especially vulnerable are spread throughout the region, especially in Honduras and western Nicaragua. But other spots, including many areas in eastern Nicaragua and eastern Honduras, will become good adaptation areas for corn and beans through the 2020s.
However, Eitzinger said, moving production to these easily adaptable areas could create a land conflict with forests and risk the loss of trees. "We think this could produce a kind of pressure for these areas, a lot of conflict for biodiversity," he said. Poor soil quality also leaves farmers vulnerable to changes in weather. Corn production in El Salvador could drop by one-third in fields with poor soil by the 2050s, the study found. On fields with good soils, however, productivity would drop by a mere 1 to 2 percent.
Combined, corn and bean crop losses could mean a loss of more than $122 million in value for Central America.
Efforts to improve agriculture in Central America should center around rebuilding nutrient-poor agriculture, capturing excessive rainfall in the wet months to use in the dry months, and coordinating with local agriculture extension services for technical assistance and better data records, said Paul Hicks, coordinator for the Global Water Initiative within Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
CRS, CIAT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation put together the study. "We're looking at farmers being more resilient and more prosperous, even in the face of climate change," Hicks said.