Threat of ‘heatflation’ looms large as climate change shrinks farm and seafood output, experts say

The impact of climate change is there for all to see. The rising temperatures and frequency of floods and droughts is threatening agriculture and fishery around the world, with climate experts warning of “heatflation” – higher food prices driven by rising temperatures and smaller harvests.

Experts said that there are measures that countries across the world can adopt to mitigate the impact of climate change on food production.

“Even small changes in climatic conditions can result in large gains or losses in crop yields and production quantities,” said Aurelia Britsch, director of climate risk at Sustainable Fitch, the sustainable finance research unit of Fitch Ratings, in written comments to the Post.

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Rising temperatures are already forcing rice farmers in southern China, one of the country’s main rice-growing regions, to shift to higher latitudes, while the fast-warming oceans are affecting fish species diversity in the East and South China Sea.

As temperatures trend upwards in China, combined with increased frequency and intensification of droughts, it will have a detrimental effect on rice yields in southern and eastern China, by limiting photosynthesis and lowering pollen production, according to a report published last November by Fitch Solutions.

Higher temperatures and decreasing precipitation can also cause soil fertility to decline and lead to soil salinisation – accumulation of soluble salts of sodium, magnesium and calcium – which is detrimental to rice production, the report added.

The shift in rice production further north in China is expected to continue over the coming decades, said Britsch, adding that she expects the Chinese government to issue more support targeting food security.

The situation will be worsened by decreasing rainfall. Agriculture is the most water-intensive industrial sector in China, consuming around 60 per cent of national water withdrawal.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that China may face more groundwater depletion due to climate change. Less rain and hotter weather will increase the need for crop irrigation while the country might face more water scarcity, the panel noted.

The warming temperatures are also affecting other cash crops globally. Rising temperatures will reduce the land suitable for growing coffee by up to 50 per cent by 2050, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Climatic Change.

By 2040, 40 per cent of global cotton-growing regions are projected to experience a decrease in growing seasons due to rising heat, according to a report produced by Cotton 2040, an initiative working for a more sustainable and climate-resilient cotton industry.

In fishery, scientists have called for immediate action over the next 10 years to prevent irreparable damage to Asia’s key oceans due to rising ocean temperatures and overfishing.

If global temperature rises by 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, the South China Sea, one of the most important fishing areas in the west Pacific, in terms of productivity and economic value, is likely to experience significant declines in key commercial fish species, according to a research report commissioned by Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation and published last year. In such a scenario, annual revenue losses are estimated in excess of US$10 billion.

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“Under certain climate change scenarios, seafood species that are mainstays of the Hong Kong seafood market, such as groupers and threadfin breams, could be reduced to a fraction of their present population by the end of the century – if not driven completely to extinction,” said Rashid Sumaila, professor at the University of British Columbia that conducted the research.

“This is especially the case in the tropical waters of the South China Sea, where many fish species are already facing the limits of their heat tolerance,” he added.

Experts said measures like farm insurance schemes can help farmers become financially resilient and allow them to bounce back from extreme weather events. Diversifying production towards more drought-resistant staples could also soften supply shocks under difficult weather.

Farmers can also limit the negative impact of climate change on crop yields by adapting regenerative agriculture to reverse the ongoing soil degradation, said Britsch from Sustainable Fitch. This approach to farming involves practicing recycling farm waste, crop rotation as well as protecting water resources and biodiversity.

As agriculture and fishery are responsible for nearly 20 per cent of global emissions, it is also important that they reduce their carbon footprints, experts said. The main solutions for mitigating emissions include investing in halting deforestation, investing in innovation such as agritech, animal tech, alternative proteins and vertical farming.

“Temperature increases cannot be limited simply by reducing energy-related emissions; cutting emissions from the global food sector will also be a key element of a journey to net zero,” said Elizabeth Curmi, director and global thematic analyst at Citi Global Insights.

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