Thursday, April 29, 2010

What will we be eating?

Suman Sahai
In Princeton last summer I got a real sense of the extent to which the American food chain is industrialized. The food on campus and off campus in the city was largely bad, throwing up a major disconnect between the intellectual standards of the university and the pedestrian food in its environs. You would imagine the educated would eat better than that! Princeton is a small town dominated by the university and its past and present inhabitants. It has a high percentage of educated and affluent people yet most of the food there comes out of boxes and bags.

On early morning walks I saw small and big trucks unloading pre-finished foods at stores, restaurants and delis. Neatly packed boxes of industry made dough labeled ‘farmers bread’, ‘ciabatta’, ‘whole wheat’ or ‘multi grain’ would be delivered for the freezer, to be later put into microwave ovens and served up warm and ‘fresh’. So also with meats, vegetables, pasta, french fries, sauces, anything.

Whether you ate at an up market restaurant, picked up a sandwich from the neighborhood deli or stopped for a hot meal at the university faculty club, the food tasted the same. The sauces came out of bottles, the vegetables and pasta out of the freezer, as did the meat and fish, detouring through the microwave onto your plate. Everything tasted of plastic and preservatives. On travels across the world I have found in hotels that many foods are identical regardless of whether you are in Nairobi or Tokyo. ‘greek yoghurt’, ‘farmer sausages’ or hash brown potatoes ,shipped in giant plastic tubs from a central American facility, appearing simultaneously at breakfast buffets from Reykjavik to Rio has become the norm. At a charming seaside hotel in Granada in the Caribbean some years ago, it was not possible to order fresh fish because the trawlers of the big fishing companies had contracts that allowed them to scoop everything from the sea and send it back chopped and processed into frozen sticks and cubes.

The response to plastic foods was the organic movement, aiming to produce fresh food; that was flavorful and nutritious, was not tired from traveling thousands of miles and looked like food, not briquettes.

In the early days of organic farming, there was no premium, no mass production and no supermarket sales. But even as we watched, the process begun by the early pioneers, about expanding the world of healthy, natural foods began to derail. The organic food and its localized markets of the early days has now mutated into an organic foods industry that is centralized as against local, is riddled with complex regulations and has passed into the hands of big business like industrial food. Increasingly, the same companies have a product line of factory produced foods and another of organic and so called ‘natural’ or
‘like natural’ foods. This ‘organic food’ is as anonymous as the factory food and has as little connection with the geography of where it was produced. Instead, it is packaged like factory food with detailed labels listing its virtues. This hijacked organic food process has gone to absurd extents bearing no resemblance to the fresh, seasonal, unrefined food that was its initial promise. It even puts out ultra heated ‘organic’ milk without realizing the irony of it.

My worry is that in India where many regions continue to produce food that is naturally organic, before a healthy organic trend can be strengthened and made mainstream, the food chain is on its way to getting industrialized. Big players from outside and inside the country are already in food, there is contract farming, organized retail, packaged foods and underpinning much of this, the Indo –US deal on Agriculture. Agriculture and food in India continues to get the short end of the stick despite public pronouncements by all political parties. We face multiple crises in this sector. There is the global food crisis to which India is not immune even if it is not in the vortex, there are the challenges of global warming and the inexplicable biofuel policy threatening to take land and water away from food production. As if all this was not bad enough, we are on the verge of entering the era of plastic foods. Perhaps now, finally, middle class India would find it worthwhile to raise its voice; if not to ensure a livelihood for the farmer, then at least to ensure that the rice for the sushi is organic.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Agriculture and the challenge of Climate Change

Suman Sahai

Climate change is likely to have a long term impact on social, environmental, economic, technological and political processes. But its most destructive influence will be on agriculture and food production in the poor developing countries. These will be more susceptible to climate change damage than the temperate countries, many of which actually benefit from climate change. 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. According to climate estimates, agriculture in the productive areas of Africa and south Asia will be amongst the worst affected. Some estimates say almost 40 per cent of the production potential in certain developing countries could be lost. 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 or triple cropping areas, where two to three crops are produced in a year. To offset this loss, an effort must be made to convert single cropping areas into two crop zones. This can be done by efficient rain water harvesting and developing micro watersheds and water bodies so that in rain fed areas where one crop is being harvested today, water can be made available for a second crop.

Coping with the impact of climate change on agriculture will require careful management of resources like land, water and biodiversity. Food production can be stabilized and livelihoods secured if the impact of climate change is factored into the design and implementation of development programmes. Large scale awareness programmes are necessary to prepare farmers, who are today bewildered by the rapid fluctuations in weather conditions that are affecting their farming. Their traditional knowledge does not help them to manage the current anthropogenic changes.

It is necessary to develop and demonstrate successful, replicable models to enable agriculture and food production to both adjust to the changing climate, as well as mitigate

the emissions from crop production. Fortunately technologies and practices that can help to achieve this are now available. The real stumbling block is perhaps the mind set fixated on intensive, agrochemical based agriculture as the only option and the lack of political will to introduce the fundamental changes that are necessary to make agriculture sustainable and high yielding. A well articulated and focused advocacy position and an effective campaign is needed to bring about the required policy changes.

Making agriculture sustainable and reducing emissions

Practices in agriculture will need to shift from intensive, mechanized, water demanding agriculture to more sustainable, conservationist methods that give higher crop yields using less water. ‘More crop per drop of water’ is the strategy recommended to tackle drought. The same approach is applicable in a wider sense when addressing the challenges posed by climate change.

Sustainable practices like conservation agriculture can keep carbon fixed. Conservation agriculture is a system of farming that conserves, improves and makes more efficient use of natural resources through integrated management of available soil water and biological resources. The reduced till agriculture advocated by conservative agriculture means more carbon can remain trapped in the soil instead of being released when the soil is ploughed

extensively before each planting. Important interventions include proper land preparation to minimize soil erosion, making contours and water channels to maximize water use, keeping overall water use low. Micro irrigation and drip irrigation are effective but expensive. Other helpful actions are planting trees and fodder crops on contours and watersheds, agro forestry and reforestation, crop rotations, green manure crops and intercropping as well as mulching and keeping a cover of crop residues on the surface.

The drawback though is the necessity of controlling weeds by extensive use of chemicals. But it is possible to replace chemical fertilizers and pesticides with bioorganic nutrients as much as possible without compromising yield. Such an agriculture system needed not necessarily conform to the standards set for organic certification.

Replacing agrochemicals with bio-organic substitutes, leads to a significant reduction in the carbon footprint. Reducing the application of nitrogenous fertilizers like urea will have a great impact on nitrous oxide emissions. Barring areas like Punjab, Indian agriculture which is largely manual, as against the highly mechanized agriculture of the west, has a low carbon footprint because it does not use fossil fuels.

System of Rice Intensification

Some (relatively) new agronomic practices are showing promise as adaptive strategies and are yielding good results, particularly in rice cultivation, which is Asia’s main crop. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is a water saving, methane emission reducing rice cultivation strategy. Instead of flooding paddy fields as in current rice cultivation, the SRI consists of watering and draining the fields in a manner that significantly reduces the

amount of water required. Essentially, SRI changes agronomy practices in a manner that enables prolific root formation and tilling that leads to more panicles and hence more grains per plant. This has an obvious impact on raising crop yields. This strategy increases weeds in the fields which have to be dealt with but apart from reducing the use of water in crop production, SRI also reduces the build up of methane by doing away with standing water in rice paddies.

Agro biodiversity key to climate change adaptation

In addition to land and water, the other important factor needed to adapt to climate change, is the biodiversity related to agriculture that is adapted to local conditions. There is an urgent need to conserve the genetic diversity of crop plants and livestock. All the biodiversity related to agriculture is referred to as agro biodiversity and this according to the FAO, is acknowledged as a key resource to ensure that agriculture in various parts of the world can survive the onslaught of turbulent weather and unpredictable climate. Conserving agro biodiversity means conserving the gene pool and those genes that may come in useful for traits required by crops under changed conditions.

If coastal areas get submerged then crop varieties will need to develop tolerance to salinity and water logging. If on the other hand inland areas become drier and rain fed areas face almost drought like conditions, then it will be necessary develop crop varieties that are drought tolerant. Turbulence in the weather patterns including moisture and wind could bring new diseases and insect pests, requiring varieties that are resistant to these.

The key to breeding suitable varieties is to have access to the required genes, which would confer disease resistance or drought tolerance. Conserving agro biodiversity today

conserves genes for today and tomorrow.