One degree increase in Central America could affect one million farm families

A new report from CIAT predicts a one degree temperature increase in Central America by 2020. This could mean that maize and beans no longer will thrive in the area, risking the livelihood of one million farm families. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)

by Cecilia Schubert

Alarming papers and risk analyses world-wide keep depicting a more uncertain and problematic future for agriculture and food security. This time, the bells are ringing for Central America. New research from our lead center International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) shows that higher temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns could transform the agricultural landscape of Central America, putting millions of maize and bean farmers’ future at risk. 

The newly released report "Tortillas on the roaster" (PDF) takes a closer look at how a warmer climate will impact Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in Central America. The report is a pioneering piece, in that it covers a smaller area, where normally projections tend to cover a wider geographic area. The effects from ignoring the importance of local level information can already be seen. Leaders and farmers know that climate change is happening, but due to the lack of local projections, they simply don’t know how to implement adaptive and preventive measures to help limit the negative consequences of climate change.

Prepared by CIAT, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), as part of a project led by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the report exposes the risks of climate change to the two most important food crops in the area - maize and beans. The expected average temperature increase of around 1 degree Celsius by 2020 will severely affect maize and exacerbating water shortages. With crops suffering from severe heat stress, large areas where maize is currently being grown could become unsuitable for the crop, resulting in economic losses to the region as a whole of around USD$ 100 million per year. This would affect more than 1 million smallholder farm families that depend on the cultivation of maize and/or beans for their subsistence.

For beans, there is a serious threat of reduced rains during the planting season in September, with higher temperatures affecting flowering and seed production, which could reduce yields in all four countries by as much as 25 percent.

The report should be used for future climate change adaptation planning and preparation. The study scientists suggest that with decisive action from policymakers, the worst can be averted. “The report highlights that there is no quick fix,” said Paul Hicks, Regional Coordinator, Global Water Initiative-Central America, Catholic Relief Services. “This is about getting back to basics. Extension services across the region need to be reinvigorated to train small farmers in soil and water management. And governments need to lead, they have the ability to make a real difference through setting climate-smart agricultural policies.”

The report concludes strongly that stakeholders can, with this new information, now shift from a position of uncertainty to a position of risk management. There is still reason for optimism: if action is taken now, the most severe impacts can be managed.

Central America is considered one of the world’s most vulnerable regions, which is also why the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has decided to include it as one of its primary research areas. Visit our web page regularly for more updates on our expansion to both Latin America, and South East Asia. You can also follow us on Facebook, and Twitter @Cgiarclimate for updates.

Download the Report "Tortillas on a roaster" (PDF).

Read the Press Release for the study. (PDF)

View a photoserie from the mentioned countries, taken while collecting materials for the study.

This blog post was written by Cecilia Schubert, Communications Assistant, at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The blog post is based on the official press release.