How to Adapt to Changing Climate and Weather – Lessons from the Pacific Islands

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a “Lunch With Forages” session presented by the Oregon Forage and Grasslands Council. It featured Dr. Patricia Fifita, who talked about her work in the Pacific Islands studying and working with local indigenous farmers who are constantly modifying their farming techniques to adjust to an ever changing world. Listening to her describe some of the intricate ways that Pacific Island farmers have adapted their agricultural systems made my heart sing with the hopeful thought that maybe we mainland farmers can find ways to survive the challenges we are faced with too.

The Challenge

Today, Pacific Island farmers are responding to the challenge of climate change. Surface air temperatures are rising. Rainfall patterns are changing – decreasing in some places and increasing in others. Weather extremes are more frequent and intense, and mean sea levels are rising. Except for the part about sea level, it sounds a lot like what farmers everywhere are facing.

Changing Crops, Changing Production Systems

Rising sea levels mean that crops are periodically inundated by salt water, which kills them. The taro field below is an example of the damage salt water does.

 

In response, the farmers have focused on growing more salt tolerant versions of their crops with an emphasis on the foods important to their culture – cassava root, sweet potatoes, all include salt tolerant varieties. The picture below is a crop of salt tolerant giant swamp taro which, as it’s name suggests, is tolerant of swamps too.

 

In Gaum farmers are growing dwarf varieties of staple food crops like breadfruit and banana trees. Their shorter stature means they stand up better to the extreme winds and cyclones the island now experiences.

In American Samoa, the farmers are now dealing with heavy, very intense rainfall that can harm crops. They’ve adapted with multi-cropping systems that provide more protection to crops. Vertical farming is another adaptation shown here. Those stacked pots are growing lettuce for the school lunch programs and for McDonald’s hamburgers. It’s an important product as lettuce is very expensive to fly in.

 

The heavy rains can cause increased erosion and runoff. Farmers are planting Vetiver grass around crop fields to hold soil in place, and around piggeries to prevent runoff that could impact the reef. The grass is also useful on the steep, sometimes 30 degree slopes some island farmers work on.

 

Climate Vulnerability

This is a King Tide in the Marshall islands. A King Tide is an extremely high tide, and in this case is inundating homes thanks to sea level rise.

We’ve all seen pictures like the one at the right showing how climate change is causing sea levels to rise and impacting island communities. But, Dr. Fifita says that Pacific Islanders are weary of being framed as vulnerable or unable to protect themselves. That picture doesn’t recognize the resilience and the strengths they demonstrate on a daily basis. These tropical farmers have been adapting, tweaking and changing for countless generations, and are continuing to adapt today.

They’re faced with a small land base and a fragile ecosystem, yet they’re managing to move forward sustainably and successfully. If they can do it, maybe we all can do it too!

Thanks for reading!

Kathy

P.S. Dr. Fifita spoke as part of the Oregon Forage and Grasslands Council’s “Lunch With Forages.” It’s a great program that provides an opportunity to listen to farmers and ranchers from all over the world. As the name implies, it’s an hour at lunch time, and it’s free. Just register in advance so you can get the Zoom call link. This week Maria Gimenez-Fernandez will be talking about how human and rangeland ecologies affect each other. You can register here. And check out the list of speakers for the rest of 2021 here.

This is the third season of Lunch With Forages and they’ve had some great speakers! The sessions are recorded and available to OFGC members. Check out the speaker list and then join. It’s just $35!

One thought on “How to Adapt to Changing Climate and Weather – Lessons from the Pacific Islands

  1. I thought Dr. Fifita’s chat was fascinating. While we often bemoan the troubles in agriculture, she is very clear about one thing: adaptation is the way forward, and it doesn’t really matter where you live.

    I would also note that the farmers of the Pacific face at least one problem that is very common here on the mainland. My old friend Martin grew up on rural American Samoa. We were talking about agriculture one day and he shook his head in dismay, telling me…

    “These kids today, heck, they don’t even know how to plant a banana tree.”

    Sound familiar?

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