Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hot, dry, hungry

Suman Sahai

Despite the India Meteorological Department’s brave pronouncements, the monsoon this year is looking to be as disturbed as it was last year. A disturbed monsoon has a direct correlation with a deficit in food production. This happened last year and in all likelihood will happen again this year unless the monsoon in north India picks up immediately. These weather uncertainties are being attributed to climate change, a result of anthropogenic or manmade factors. The anticipated changes in climate and its impact on agriculture and food production are of great concern to tropical countries like India. The developing countries in the tropics are less able to adapt and are more susceptible to climate change damage than the temperate countries, many of which will be beneficiaries.

There is a broad consensus that tropical areas are slated to see an expansion of arid zones. This will be accompanied by a contraction of 31-51 million ha of favourable cultivation areas and a significant reduction in food production in the most vulnerable areas where population density is high and food already scarce. Nearly one billion affected people live in these vulnerable environments, dependent on agriculture. These vulnerable populations have limited capacity to protect themselves from the environmental hazards that will accompany climate change, like drought and floods, and will suffer most from land degradation and biodiversity loss.

The Polluter gets Paid
Climate related impacts on food production will be geographically unevenly distributed. In a perverse irony, the developed (industrialised) countries will experience an increase in agriculture productivity potential as temperate regions get warmer. The regions which because of their industrialisation and huge emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are responsible for the climate change phenomenon will actually end up being its beneficiaries with respect to food production. On the other hand, today’s developing world in the tropics, which has not contributed to creating this climate hazard, will be its worst victim, and will suffer a loss in agriculture productivity, with serious consequences for food availability and hunger.About 40 poor and food-insecure countries, with a projected total population (in 2080) of one to three billion, will lose 10-20 per cent of their cereal-production potential. Of these, Africa will be the worst affected followed by South Asia. Crop production losses as a result of climate change could further worsen the prevalence and depth of hunger. This burden will fall disproportionately on the poorest. To compound the damage, the overall trend of reduced food production will create market imbalances, which will push up international prices, making it even more difficult for governments of food scarce countries to access food for their poor.

According to estimates, a little less than half 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 and triple cropping areas like Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh from where the surplus grain for our buffer stock comes. This means areas where two to three crops are produced in a year and which are predicted 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 for cultivation.

Coping with wheat loss
For South Asia, particularly India, one of the most serious impacts is anticipated in wheat production. Wheat is the single largest winter crop of north India and states like Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh produce the surplus wheat that goes into the PDS. Wheat is a particularly temperature sensitive crop and it has been estimated that for every one degree rise in temperature, wheat producing areas in India and South Asia will lose about four to five million tonnes of production. This will have a cascading effect on food for the poor.

The immediate challenge is to find a substitute for wheat as the dominant winter crop for north India and other parts where wheat is cultivated. Tubers like potato, can be part of the solution. These could fill the shortfall to some extent but the cereal deficit will have to be made up by some other cereal. Corn could be suitable as a supplementary crop and a partial wheat replacement. Millets are as yet an unexplored option and have not been assessed for potential. Although millets typically grow during the summer in Asia, there are also several millet types which are cultivated at high altitude. Such millet germplasm could form the basis of developing new varieties suited for cultivation during the winter season of a changed, warmer climate regime.

The ability of a country to cope with the impact of climate change on agriculture will depend on a number of factors. The total amount of arable land and available water resources will be critical determinants of the ability of regions to adapt to the changes brought by a warming world. Apart from land, the availability of water could become a critical limiting factor. For instance, the impact of global warming on the Tibetan plateau and Himalayan glaciers will affect the 10 or so main rivers like the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Brahmaputra that come out of there and flow into China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Harnessing these river waters as the ice caps and Himalayan glaciers recede and the water flow in rivers diminishes, will need skilful diplomatic negotiations so that river waters can be shared in such a manner as to ensure that requirements of agriculture are met in all affected countries.

India has technical skills in agriculture and a sophisticated farming community capable of combining indigenous knowledge with recent scientific advances. The country is rich in biodiversity and community experiences from diverse agro ecological zones offer a number of options to find solutions. All this would enable the agriculture of the region to cope with climate change impacts provided a comprehensive and effective policy response is put into action right away.

- Dr Suman Sahai, a genetic scientist who has served on thefaculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, isconvenor of the Gene Campaign