From providing food to sustaining smallholder communities, agriculture is a fundamental core of our society – one that the modern world cannot live without. Even so, this critical industry can be highly unpredictable as it relies on various factors that significantly impact its outcome, including the most influential: climate.
Climate refers to the long-term atmospheric conditions of a region, determined by the average frequency of weather events over time. Agriculture heavily relies on this natural factor as it dictates which crops can grow in an area while also affecting the quality and stability of yields. As with its significance, climatic and weather conditions can be as volatile by nature, with the likelihood of sudden changes and severity.
Extreme conditions have become common occurrences with climate change. Higher temperatures and erratic rain patterns have lowered yields and promoted diseases and pests from planting to processing, causing massive losses to the agricultural industry – where the majority comprises vulnerable smallholder farmers. Alarmingly, as everyone is still adapting to these changes, the world is likely to experience another climatic issue: El Niño.
Understanding El Niño
According to National Geographic, El Niño is a natural climate pattern described as an unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Together with La Niña, a phase with cooler surface waters, these two patterns make up the bigger El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon. El Niño occurs irregularly at 2 to 7-year intervals, significantly affecting currents, temperatures, and weather from and beyond the surrounding regions. Its impact is also not regular or predictable.
The World Meteorological Organization states that the likelihood of El Niño has increased for the year 2023, following the neutral state after the unusual 3-year La Niña. A 60% transition chance was predicted for May to July, gradually increasing to 70% in June to August and 80% between July and September.
There is no clear indication of the strength and duration as no two El Niño events are the same. Last 2016 was the warmest recorded year due to human-induced warming and a powerful El Niño. The new development will presumably also lead to a spike in temperature records, with its effects likely to be apparent in 2024.
With the June report, conditions have emerged as above-average sea surface temperatures strengthen. This event prompted NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center and the Tokyo Climate Center to announce the arrival of El Niño, expected to gradually strengthen into the Northern Hemisphere winter of 2023-2024.
Despite the differences, past El Niño events can give an idea of what to expect and prepare for. Like in the 1997-1998 El Niño, the coast of Latin America and Eastern Africa experienced massive flooding as droughts devastated Southeast Asia. Heavy rains led to severe losses and extensive damage to crops and infrastructures in the affected areas. In Somalia, farmers lost their traditionally stored harvest and seeds to flooding. On the other hand, drought caused around 3.5 million tons of cereal shortfall in Indonesia, raising food prices and causing unrest among the vulnerable population.
Aside from record-breaking temperatures, the 2015-2016 El Niño also severely affected the food security and health of millions worldwide. Among the regions affected by extreme conditions, Ethiopia experienced severe droughts, which caused 80% of harvests to fail, affecting more than 22 million people. The following year, Peru and Colombia suffered excessive rainfall and floods, costing Peru’s economy 3.1 billion USD in lost productivity.
Taking Action: Climate-Smart Approach
The effects of El Niño can be severe and devastating. Mitigating its issues requires being informed and prepared beforehand. One start is the timely and long-term adaptation of incorporating climate-smart agriculture, but what is it, and how can it help with the upcoming phenomenon?
Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is an approach to increase resilience and productivity despite the effects of climate. However, this approach is not a solution to climate change and other climatic issues but rather a solution to mitigate secondary and tertiary problems.
A climate-smart approach aims to benefit smallholder farmers, promoting and working with sustainable practices that reduce emissions and negative environmental impact. Climate-smart agriculture adapts to conservation practices like mulching and reducing tillage for better soil management, crop rotation and diversification, and agroforestry. These practices can help reduce water loss and soil erosion while actively working with climate and nature.
Climate-smart post-harvest management is another critical and sustainable adaptation for this approach, as varying temperatures and extreme weather conditions leave harvested commodities vulnerable to pests, contamination, and spoilage. With the weather changes brought about by El Niño, securing food is more critical than ever. Utilizing climate-smart solutions can prevent post-harvest losses from general circumstances and unusual events.
Drying is an essential post-harvest process for preserving agricultural commodities. Traditional drying methods are often reliant on the sun. In regions affected by rains during El Niño, climate-smart drying solutions are easy-to-use innovations that protect drying crops from or were affected by sudden changes. An adaptable and easy-to-install example, Bubble Dryer™ is a tunnel-type dryer that uses the sun’s energy to heat air for even drying. Its shape offers covered protection from rain, contamination, and pest damage.
After drying, proper storage is necessary for short and long-term preservation. A time-tested technology, hermetic storage incorporates the essence of climate-smart agriculture. This energy-efficient storage relies on airtight barriers, blocking air and moisture exchanges to create a stable modified atmosphere for stored commodities. These properties also lessen emissions by allowing natural and chemical-free protection from pests, especially insects that thrive in warmer environments.
A weather-resistant and flood-protected solution, the Cocoon™ is ideal for storing dry agricultural commodities on a larger scale. This solution also allows easy monitoring to ensure safety during the conditions brought by El Niño. For small-scale storage, Hermetic Bags™ are similarly reliable airtight liners capable of protecting various commodities, including staple grains and seeds.
Transport is also part of post-harvest processing. Regardless of the circumstances, the transportation of goods regularly experiences erratic changes and climatic differences. Additional protective measures, such as hermetic container liners, can prevent losses due to temperature fluctuations and condensation. This climate-smart precaution can keep the process smooth-sailing despite the circumstances, especially extreme situations.
While climate-smart agriculture brings hope for smallholder farmers worldwide, it is only one of the necessary preparations for worldwide phenomena. Unexpected challenges can arise with the unpredictability of El Niño, possibly leaving the world to adapt as it happens. Despite this uncertainty, staying informed and taking precautions can go a long way in preserving the present to securing a foodful tomorrow.