Saturday, May 14, 2011


Suman Sahai
As the world struggles with successive food crises and turbulence marks the countries that suffer from endemic hunger, there is the new factor of global warming and climate change to contend with. Climate change and its impact on agriculture and food production is being properly understood only now, as its anticipated impacts are being felt in agricultural ecosystems across the world.

The developing countries in the tropics are more susceptible to climate change damage than the temperate countries, many of which will be beneficiaries. The worst impacts of climate change on food production are anticipated in Africa and South Asia. For the latter where agriculture remains largely monsoon dependent, disturbances in the monsoon as we know it, could have grave implications for food and water security. If the monsoon falters, so does our food security as well as the livelihood security of large parts of the population.

Changes in rainfall patterns and temperature regimes, influence local water balance and disturb the optimal cultivation period for particular crops, known as Length of Growing Period (LGP). According to climate change data, land with good LGP will decrease by as much as 51 million hectare world wide.

Adequate LGP is needed to ensure that medium to long duration crops are able to grow to maturity. Some crop varieties ripen quickly and are ready for use in a shorter period ( short duration varieties), others, specially among cereals require a longer period to mature.When the LGP in an agro climatic zone is long,a variety of crops from short duration to long duration can be cultivated there, throughout the growing season. This means higher food production. When the LGP contracts, the growing season is shortened, with implications for food production. Most climate change models predict large increases of LGP in today’s temperate, and arctic regions. This means that temperate regions which are currently one crop zones will become two crop zones, thus increasing agriculture production there.

Tropical areas on the other hand are slated to see an expansion of arid zones accompanied by a contraction of 31-51 million ha of favorable cultivation areas. This will mean a significant reduction in food production in the most vulnerable areas where population density is high and food is already scarce. Nearly one billion people live in these vulnerable environments, dependent on agriculture. These vulnerable populations will suffer most from climate damage like land degradation and biodiversity loss.

Climate Change Impacts in India and South Asia
According to climate data almost 40 percent of the production potential in certain developing countries could be lost. In India and South Asia, dryland areas where agriculture is rainfed, will see cutbacks in productivity due to a shorter, more uncertain monsoon. The biggest blow to food stocks however is likely to come from declining production because areas where two to three crops are being cultivated today, as in Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh, the Northeastern states and certain coastal areas, are likely to turn into single crop zones, where only one crop can be taken in a year because the rest of the season will be too hot and dry to support cultivation.

The manifestation of climate change in India and South Asia finds many forms. There have been serious and recurrent floods in Bangladesh, Nepal and India since 2002 and unusually heavy rainfall and floods in Mumbai in 2005. Torrential rain in Jaisalmer and parts of Rajasthan in 2010 led to floods in this desert region, accompanied by more frequent and prolonged droughts as in the years 2008 to 2010. At the same time cyclonic activity has become high. Witness the increased cyclones in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea since 1970 and more recently Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 and Cyclone Aila in 2009. This weather turbulence is accompanied by increasing turbulence in India’s food lifeline, the South West monsoon.

According to monsoon modeling data, the total number of rainy days during the monsoon period will decrease by 15 days. Considering that most of the monsoon rainfall falls within 100 days, this will be a significant shortfall. The intensity of the rainfall is expected to increase accompanied by strong surface run off and loss of fertile top soil. The melting of the Himalayan glaciers will diminish the water flow in the major rivers of North India ,affecting the food production in the highly productive Indo- Gangetic plains.

The melting polar ice is causing the sea level to rise. Large parts of the Maldives could go under, as could the Ganges delta in Bangladesh. India with its coastline of nearly 6000 km, has cause for concern. Several million people practice agriculture and aquaculture along the coast, all of which will be threatened by the increasing salinity of ground water as sea water seeps into aquifers. Along with major staple crops, other food sources like livestock and fish , both marine and fresh water will be affected by rising temperatures. Sea level rise will impact the habitations of populations that live along the coast, as in Kerala or Bangladesh and loss of homesteads along with livelihoods will create a new class of climate refugees who will be forced to migrate inwards, seeking new avenues of survival, creating greater pressures on urban centres. Contingency plans will be needed to rehabilitate climate refugees from vulnerable areas.

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 in climate change negotiations are sufficient to ensure 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.

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 and with China 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 – The Prime Minister has established the National Action Plan on Climate Change with eight national Missions designed to cope with the impact of climate change in diverse sectors like energy, water, agriculture and biodiversity. Appropriate policy and budgetary support for mitigation and adaptation actions is needed. In agriculture, adaptation strategies have long lead times and need to start NOW. 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. To prepare for climate altered conditions, practices in agriculture will need to shift from intensive, mechanized, water demanding agriculture to a more sustainable, conservation agriculture that grows crops using less water, extracting more crop per drop of water.

Local- Attention will have to be paid both to mitigation and adaptation to climate change, the real action for which 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.

Since approximately 17 percent of total GHG emissions are attributed to crop and animal husbandry , it is necessary to reduce this for the overall health of the planet. Mitigation measures can include minimizing mechanization; supplementing urea with biological fertilizer and using neem coated urea to minimize ammonia volatilization contributing to nitrous oxide emissions. An effective strategy to reduce methane emission from cattle is establishing biogas plants with animal dung which in addition provides a clean source of renewable energy. Building soil carbon banks to capture and retain carbon in the soil can be achieved by planting fertilizer trees

Mitigation of greenhouse gases from agricultural systems and building adaptation strategies must be anchored in the village panchayat system to enhance coping capacities of farming communities. Mitigating emissions from agriculture will reduce input costs for the farmer and make the production system more sustainable but the real challenge to the food and livelihood security of our people will have to be met by rapid and targeted adaptation strategies.

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

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 store buffer stocks to ensure local food security and stabilize prices. A special climate risk insurance should be launched for farmers and the agriculture credit and insurance systems must be made climate responsive and more sensitive to the needs of small farmers.

Adaptation and mitigation support structures in the form of Climate Risk Research Centers should be established at each of the 128 agro-ecological zones in the country. The Centers 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. Gyan Chaupals and Village Resource Centers with satellite connectivity should disseminate value added weather data from the government’s Agromet Service to farmers through mobile telephony, giving them information on rainfall and weather in real time.

Uncertain weather will disrupt established cropping patterns, requiring a different set of crop varieties for which seed will have to be produced. Decentralized seed production involving local communities will help to produce locally adapted seed of the main and contingency crops. 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 will be a key adaptation strategy.

Finally, investments must be made in strategic research of both anticipatory and adaptive nature. This should cover all aspects of food production , starting with farming systems and including crop, fodder, livestock, fish and the key aspects associated with each of these.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Suman Sahai

Traveling through western and central Uttar Pradesh on my way home to Tilhar for the Holi break, I had occasion to see the winter crop . Tilhar lies about 300 km east of Delhi in the fertile plains of northern India. Here acres of wheat stood sturdily in the fields, slowly changing colour from green to yellow. The crop was good and if all goes well ( touchwood !) the farmer will have a good harvest ,bringing in a good average of grain, but will it bring in prosperity? Will the crop in the field translate into money in the bank? Likely not.

One thing is clear , the farmer knows how to farm. He, and now increasingly she, can coax out of the earth, even under difficult conditions of poor soil and little water, something to eat. In areas blessed by Nature like in the Indo-Gangetic belt where Tilhar lies, farmers know how to take good crops.

This year the wheat is good. Fairly decent winter rains that came late in the season were nectar for the standing crop. The westerly wind did not blow too much and the farmer was relieved . Because when the Pachiyao wind blows in from the west , it will cruelly dry up the sap in the seed so the grains will be light and shriveled. But this season with its sunny warming days and cool nights, so crucial for wheat, the crop was thriving and the grains are plump and plentiful. The wheat crop depends on the night temperature. It must be cold for the wheat to thrive. This year the nights have been cold and the crop in the fields shows it.

Western and Central Uttar Pradesh produce surplus grain like Punjab and Haryana and since the days of the Green Revolution, these have been important centres where rice and wheat are procured for the central pool. In the early days this worked well for farmers but in the last years , procurement has become an exercise to torment farmers rather than support them. First, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) that is announced, is never paid in full, always less. If the price announced for wheat is Rs 1120 per quintal, as it is this year, the real price that the farmer would get could be anything from Rs 750 to Rs 950 per quintal. Corruption locks the farmers in a vice like grip because they have no storage facilities and must sell their harvest immediately after harvest.

Both procurement agencies and where relevant, the market, knows this and turns the screws on price since they know the farmer has no choice but to sell. Other strategies that are used to press prices down is to tell the farmer that their grain has not been dried sufficiently ( whether that is true or not) and will not be lifted. As soon as palms have been greased, the grain dries miraculously. Other tricks are to declare the grain too ‘light’ , not fulfilling the standards set by the Food Corporation of India (FCI). The FCI’s exacting standards are equally miraculously met once the farmers pockets have become correspondingly lighter.

Often there is an unholy nexus between the FCI agents and private companies . The deal is that the procurement agency will reject much of the grain on one pretext or another Farmers have to travel to procurement centres with their grain, for it to be inspected, weighed and lifted. If they do not have their own bullock carts, they hire these or rent trucks or tractor trolleys to bring their grain to the centre. Every day of delay costs the farmer in rental money. Its like ports charge demurrage charges if you do not lift your goods. Each day the port holds your goods, it charges you a fee. Bullock cart , tractor- trolley and truck owners do the same. So if they have to wait around till the farmer can negotiate the deal, the cost of hire goes up every day.

This eats into the farmer’s profit. When the farmer’s grain is held up and he is desperate to sell , the private companies will step in and buy up the grain at low prices. In this way the backbreaking effort put in by the farmer and the little subsidy he gets on fertilizer and diesel to irrigate his fields goes to benefit the private companies. Despite a good harvest the farmer may not make a profit. Sometimes he can not even recover his cost and in this way he gets poorer and so desperate that he wants to abandon agriculture.

This is not my version. The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) discovered this in its survey in 2007 when almost half the country’s farmers said they would abandon farming if they could find another occupation. This should set the alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power. If the farmer does not grow food what will we eat? Import food ? But there is nothing available on the international market to buy ! Droughts in Australia and Russia, floods in New Zealand and turbulent weather every where has ensured that the guaranteed food surpluses cannot be counted on. The biofuel drive in the US has drawn away the American corn into ethanol production so that wheat is being diverted to animal feed and both corn and wheat are now in short supply.

It is not rocket science to understand that we need to make agriculture work if we as a nation are to get anywhere. Pursuing the dreams of 9 percent growth while leaving large chunks of India out of the ambit of such growth is fraught with danger, as the developments in Chattisgarh and Jharkhand are showing us every other week. Internal security, the Prime Minister says is the country’s largest crisis. Fixing agriculture and putting money in the farmers’ pocket is a dead sure way of finding our way out of this crisis. When will we get that?