a magazine on ecological agriculture
a one stop treasure of practical field experiences

Coping with climate change

Food, water and health security will be the greatest casualties of global warming and climate change, which will have both common and differentiated impacts. The developing countries in the tropics and sub tropics are likely to suffer the worst damage. It is therefore essential that we lose no more time in developing and implementing climate resilient systems for food and water security.

According to climate estimates, the developing countries in the tropics are more susceptible to climate change damage than the temperate countries. Agriculture in the productive areas of Africa and South Asia will be amongst the worst affected. According to some estimates, almost 40 percent of the production potential in certain developing countries could be lost.

Changes in rainfall patterns and temperature regimes will influence the local water balance and disturb the optimal cultivation period available for particular crops, thus throwing food and agricultural production out of gear. The worst brunt of climate change will be borne by farmers in the dry land regions where agriculture is rain fed, conditions are marginal and only one crop is taken per year.

In South Asia, the biggest blow to food production is expected to come from the loss of multiple cropping zones. The worst affected areas are predicted to be the double and triple cropping zones. To offset most of this loss, an effort must be made to convert today’s single cropping areas into two crop zones. This can first and foremost be done by efficient water harvesting and equitable management.

Coping with the impact of climate change on agriculture will require careful management of resources like soil, water and biodiversity. Making agriculture sustainable is key and is possible only through production systems that make the most efficient use of environmental goods and services without damaging these assets. If climate change impacts can be incorporated in the design and implementation of development programs right away, it will help to reduce vulnerability, stabilize food production and better secure livelihoods. A large scale climate literacy program is necessary to prepare farmers, who are today bewildered by the rapid fluctuations in weather conditions that affect their agriculture. Their traditional knowledge does not help them to manage these recent anthropogenic changes.

Developing countries face a substantial decrease in cereal production potential. In India, rice production is slated to decrease by almost a tonne / hectare if the temperature goes up to 20C. By 2050 about half of India’s prime wheat production area could get heat-stressed, with the cultivation window getting shorter, affecting productivity. For each 10C rise in mean temperature, wheat yield losses in India are likely to be around 7 million tonnes per year, or around $1.5 billion at current prices.

Need for initiatives at different levels

To cope with the impact of climate change on agriculture and food production, India will need to act at global, regional, national and local levels.

Global – India must negotiate hard to ensure that the emission reduction pledges or commitments are sufficient to ensure at least a 50 percent likelihood that the global temperature rise is capped at 20C. If this is not done, the impact on agriculture and food security in developing countries will be devastating. Rising temperatures will be beneficial for the agriculture of cold temperate regions since warmer conditions will allow their single crop zones to become two, even three crop zones. Given that agriculture is the lifeline of the developing world and will bear the worst brunt of climate change, India must insist that developed countries must reduce their own agriculture emissions while at the same time paying for adaptation, especially in the agriculture sector, consistent with the polluter pays principle.

Regional – Regional cooperation at SAARC level is necessary to protect the Himalayan ecosystems and minimize glacial melt. Negotiations on river waters emanating from the Tibetan plateau are urgent so that the river flows in our major rivers like the Ganga and Brahmaputra are maintained to support agriculture. Regional strategies for mitigation and adaptation across similar agro ecologies will help all countries of the region to protect their agriculture and food production.

National – Adaptation strategies have long lead times and need to start NOW. Appropriate policy and budgetary support for mitigation and adaptation actions is needed. Multiple food and livelihood strategies are needed in rural areas to minimize risk. Food inflation must be contained at all costs. It will worsen with climate change as more frequent and unpredictable droughts and floods will result in shortfalls in food production. Just one bad monsoon in 2009 led to a reduction of 15 million tonnes in rice and 4 million tonnes in pulse production, causing prices to go through the roof. A carefully planned program for strategic research, along with dedicated funding, is needed to develop solutions to cope with the impact of global warming on crops, livestock, fish, soil etc. Renewable energy must be part of our mitigation and adaptation strategy and we should focus on bringing it to scale.

Local – The real action for both mitigation and adaptation will have to be at the local level. The pursuit of sustainable agricultural development at the local level is integral to climate- change mitigation and combating climate change effects is vital for sustainable agriculture. Location specific technologies will need to be developed at the level of the agro-ecological unit, to make agriculture sustainable and minimize losses to food and nutrition.

Mitigating emissions from agriculture will reduce input costs for the farmer and make the production system more sustainable. The real challenge to the agricultural future of the country however will have to be met by rapid and targeted adaptation strategies.

Adaptation will require strategies to reduce vulnerabilities, strengthen resilience and build the adaptive capacity of rural and farming communities. Industrial agro ecosystems damage environmental goods and services and so have weak resilience.

Developing sustainability in agriculture production systems rather than seeking to maximize crop, aqua cultural and livestock outputs, will help farming communities to cope with the uncertainties of climate change. The ecosystem approach with crop rotations, bioorganic fertilizers and biological pest controls, improves soil health & water retention, increases fertile top soil, reduces soil erosion and maintains productivity over the long term. The more diverse the agro ecosystems, the more efficient the network of insects & and microorganisms that control pests and disease. Building resilience in agro ecosystems and farming communities, improving adaptive capacity and mitigating GHG emissions is the way to cope.

Agriculture biodiversity is central to an agro ecosystem approach to food production. Such an approach promotes soil fertility, fosters high productivity and protects crop, livestock, fish and soil resources. Diversity in livestock and fish species and breeds is as important as in crop varieties . Genetic diversity gives species the ability to adapt to changing environments and combat biotic and abiotic stress like pests and disease, drought and salinity.

Some specific recommendations

Apart from the obvious focus needed on soil health, water management and conservation and pest management, agriculture and food production per se ,will need to become sustainable and ecologically sound to adapt to climate change turbulence.

– A special package for adaptation should be developed for rain fed areas based on minimizing risk. The production model should be diversified to include crops, livestock, fisheries, poultry and agro forestry; homestead gardens supported by nurseries should be promoted to make up deficits in food and nutrition from climate related yield losses. Farm ponds, fertilizer trees and biogas plants must be promoted in all semi-arid rainfed areas which constitute 60 percent of our cultivated area.

– A knowledge-intensive, rather than input-intensive approach should be adopted to develop adaptation strategies. Traditional knowledge about the community’s coping strategies should be documented and used in training programs to help find solutions to address the uncertainties of climate change, build resilience, adapt agriculture and reduce emissions.

– Conserving the genetic diversity of crops and animal breeds and its associated knowledge, in partnership with local communities must receive the highest priority.

– Breed improvement of indigenous cattle must be undertaken to improve their performance since they are much better adapted to adverse weather than high performance hybrids. Balancing feed mixtures, which research shows has the potential to increase milk yield and reduce methane emission, must be promoted widely.

– An early warning system should be put in place to monitor changes in pest and disease profile and predict new pest and disease outbreaks. The overall pest control strategy should be based on Integrated Pest Management because it takes care of multiple pests in a given climatic scenario.

– A national grid of grain storages , ranging from Pusa Bins and Grain Golas at the household/ community level to ultra- modern silos at the district level must be established to ensure local food security and stabilize prices.

– The agriculture credit and insurance systems must be made more comprehensive and responsive to the needs of small farmers. For instance, pigs are not covered by livestock insurance despite their potential for income enhancement of poor households. A special climate risk insurance should be launched for farmers.

– The following adaptation and mitigation support structures should be established at each of the 128 agro-ecological zones in the country.

* A Center for Climate Risk Research, Management and Extension should prepare computer simulation models of different weather probabilities and develop and promote farming system approaches which can help to minimize the adverse impact of unfavorable weather and maximize the benefits of a good monsoon.

* A Farmer Field School to house dynamic research and training programs on building soil health, integrated pest management, water conservation and its equitable and efficient use. The FFS should engage in participatory plant and animal breeding; there should be a focused research program to identify valuable genetic traits like drought, heat and salinity tolerance and disease resistance available in the agro biodiversity of the region.

* Gyan Chaupals and Village Resource Centers with satellite connectivity from where value added weather data from the government’s Agromet Service should be reached to farmers through mobile telephony, giving them information on rainfall and weather in real time.

* A network of community level seed banks with the capacity to implement contingency plans and alternative cropping strategies depending on the behavior of the monsoon.

* Decentralized seed production programs involving local communities, to address the crisis of seed availability. Seeds of the main crops and contingency crops (for delayed / failed monsoon or floods), as well as seeds of fodder and green manure plants specific to the agro ecological unit must be produced and stocked.

Strategic research for the future

Technical and financial investments must be made in climate adaptation and mitigation research. Some priority areas:

– Evaluation of traditional varieties and animal breeds for valuable traits like tolerance to higher temperatures, drought and salinity, feed conversion efficiency and disease resistance, for use in breeding new varieties and breeds.

– Developing balanced ration and feed and fodder regimes that will increase milk yield of indigenous cattle and reduce methane emissions.

– Participatory and formal plant breeding to develop climate resilient crop varieties that can tolerate higher temperatures, drought and salinity.

– Developing short duration crop varieties ( especially wheat) that can mature before the peak heat phase sets in.

– Selecting genotypes in crops that have a higher per day yield potential, to counter the yield loss from heat induced reduction in growing periods.

– Developing (the more heat tolerant) durum wheat varieties for Rabi cultivation in North India, to supplement the diminishing wheat yield from existing wheat cultivars and breeding for chapatti making qualities in durum wheat.

Food, water and health security will be the greatest casualties of global warming and climate change, which will have both common and differentiated impacts. The developing countries in the tropics and sub tropics are likely to suffer the worst damage. It is therefore essential that we lose no more time in developing and implementing climate resilient systems for food and water security.

Suman Sahai

Dr Suman Sahai is the chairperson of Gene Campaign. She can be contacted at mail@genecampaign.org