Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

‘Do or die’ year for agriculture

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“If we don’t take steps to address the serious ecological, economic and social crises facing our farm families, we will be forced to support foreign farmers, through extensive food imports.”
“This will result in a rise in food inflation, increase the rural-urban and rich-poor divides and allow the era of farmers’ suicides to persist.”
“On the other hand, we have a unique opportunity for ensuring food for all by mobilizing the power of Yuva and Mahila Kisans and by harnessing the vast untapped yield reservoir existing in most farming systems through synergy between technology and public policy.”
“2010 is a do or die year for Indian agriculture.”

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

So says Prof M S Swaminathan, India’s best-known agriculture scientist, who established the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in 1988. Chastened by the limitations of the ‘green revolution’, the MSSRF’s mission is the conservation and enhancement of natural resources, and generation of agricultural, rural and off-farm employment with a particular emphasis on the poor and the women.

Swaminathan made these points in a blunt, hard-hitting and no-nonsense convocation address at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana on 10 February 2010. The content of his address should have attracted national attention, because of the urgency of his tone and also because of the specific, very feasible institutional transformations his suggestions will need. He talked about adaptation to climate change and explained that a group of scientists led by the MSSRF have undertaken studies during the last five years in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh on climate change adaptation measures. The districts chosen were Udaipur in Rajasthan and Mehabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh. The approach adopted was to bring about a blend of traditional wisdom and modern science through farmer participatory research.

MSS mentioned five particular points of adaptation:
1. Water conservation and sustainable and equitable use
2. Promoting fodder security
3. More crop and income per drop of water
4. Weather information for all and climate literacy
5. Strengthening community institutions

He said these interventions were supported by training and skill development and education and social mobilization. A training manual was prepared by MSSRF for training one woman and one male member of every Panchayat as Climate Risk Managers. Such local level Climate Risk Managers will be well trained in the art and science of managing weather abnormalities. The work has highlighted the need for location specific adaptation measures and for participatory research and knowledge management.

“The adaptation interventions have also highlighted the need for mainstreaming gender considerations in all interventions. Women will suffer more from Climate Change, since they have been traditionally in charge of collecting water, fodder and fuel wood, and have been shouldering the responsibility for farm animal care and post-harvest technology. All interventions should therefore be pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-women.”

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

“It is clear that to promote location specific and farmer-centric adaptation measures; India will need a Climate Risk Management Research and Extension Centre at each of the 127 agro-ecological regions in the country. Such centres should prepare Drought, Flood and Good Weather Codes what can help to minimize the adverse impact of abnormal weather and to maximize the benefits of favourable monsoons and temperature. Risk surveillance and early warning should be the other responsibilities of such centres. Thus the work done so far has laid the foundation for a Climate Resilient Agriculture Movement in India. The importance of such a Movement will be obvious considering the fact that 60% of India’s population of 1.1 billion depend upon agriculture for their livelihood. In addition, India has to produce food, feed and fodder for over 1.1 billion human, and over a billion farm animal population.”

It is a shared responsibility, said MSS, and one that the non-farming, urban population must recognise and help bear. “Urban and non-farming members of the human family should realize that we live on this planet as the guests of sunlight and green plants, and of the farm women and men who toil in sun and rain, and day and night, to produce food for over 6 billion people, by bringing about synergy between green plants and sunlight. Let us salute the farmers of the world and help them to help in achieving the goal of a hunger free world, the first among the U N Millennium Development Goals.”

These points are made at a time when India (or rather the central government and key ministries) still places economic growth as a priority rather than ecologically sustainable existence which is mindful of cultural traditions and which builds on extensive systems of traditional knowledge to take a human development route that is climate neutral. From 2007 onwards, there have been major intergovernmental and international studies on the impacts of climate change (including on agriculture). Several of these have shown that in South and East Asia, rice yields are affected. For most crops and regions, carbon fertilisation accentuates the positive impacts and mitigates the negative ones. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the true impact of carbon fertilisation. Among developing countries, the number of countries which ‘lose’ exceed the number of countries that ‘gain’, and their decrease in cereal production was greater than gains elsewhere.

Developing countries are worse off, where agriculture is concerned, said an OECD study in 2008 titled ‘Costs of Inaction on Key Environmental Challenges’. For example, the scenario with the highest CO2 concentration showed a 7% decline for developing countries. For developed countries, yields actually increased under all scenarios, but the global effect was always negative, or (at best) neutral. Not only was there significant variation across countries; the implications for the risk of hunger also varied greatly, depending on assumptions made about the fertilising effects of increasing CO2 concentrations.

“Assuming ‘no action’ is taken with respect to emissions, positive changes in yields (due to warming, precipitation, and crop fertilisation) in mid and high latitudes were predicted to be more than compensated by reductions in the lower latitudes, particularly in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Changing crop yields (and demands) will affect market prices for agricultural output, as well as land prices. Decreases in agricultural yields in developing countries are likely to have significant implications for risk of hunger.”

Moreover, there has been evidence enough of the links between reducing poverty and strengthening agriculture. A paper produced by DFID (the British official aid agency, in 2004) emphasises the historically close correlation between different rates of poverty reduction over the past 40 years and differences in agricultural performance – particularly the rate of growth of agricultural productivity. There are links described between agriculture and poverty reduction through four ‘transmission mechanisms’: 1) direct impact of improved agricultural performance on rural incomes; 2) impact of cheaper food for both urban and rural poor; 3) agriculture’s contribution to growth and the generation of economic opportunity in the non-farm sector; and 4) agriculture’s fundamental role in stimulating and sustaining economic transition, as countries (and poor people’s livelihoods) shift away from being primarily agricultural towards a broader base of manufacturing and services.

Why is this so important to India and so important now? An ADB paper explains (‘A General Equilibrium Analysis of the Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture in the People’s Republic of China’, by Fan Zhai, Tun Lin, and Enerelt Byambadorj, Asian Development Bank, 2010). Despite rapid growth in recent decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is no exception to the effects of climate change. It also faces a great challenge to meet increasing demand for agricultural products due to increasing population and income level in the coming years. In the PRC, agriculture accounted for 11.7% of the national gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006 and agricultural crop land occupied 157 million hectares. Agricultural production has enabled the country to feed a population of 1.3 billion people, more than a fifth of the world’s population, of whom 900 million live in rural areas, from an eighth of the world’s arable land.

“Global climate change could cause rises in temperature, redistribution of rainfall, and more frequent flooding and droughts, and do considerable damage to crop production and the agricultural sector in general,” says the ADB paper. “At the national level, overall impact on crop production, assuming there is no carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilisation, is an estimated 7 to 14% reduction in rice, 9 to 10% reduction in maize, and 2 to 9% reduction in wheat. Assuming an average drop of 7%, this means a reduction of almost 40 million metric tons of food grain, and 20% of the global grain trade. Such a loss would undermine food security in the PRC, with particular health consequences for the poor and women, as females are primarily responsible for feeding the family.”

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