Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Climate of threat to food security

Suman Sahai

Despite the fact that independent India has not had large-scale famines, widespread hunger prevails and is growing. According to official data, almost 87 per cent of rural India gets less than the minimum calorie requirement.

The decline in agricultural productivity, the diversion of foodgrains to feed poultry and livestock, policies that focus on export products and cash crops, as also inflationary food prices are contributing to a growing food crisis in the country. In addition, there is the proposed diversion of land and water to the production of Jatropha-based biofuels, the rapidly changing land use policy and the government’s support for special economic zones even when they encroach on prime agricultural land.

Economic reforms in India have led to disinvestment in the agriculture sector. This has adversely affected more than two-thirds of the population that is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood. Farmers themselves face hunger due to rising input costs and non-remunerative prices of farm products. There is no effective crop and livestock insurance to cover damage and credit is not available at reasonable rates.

Food availability has declined. Immediately after Independence, from the 1950s to 1964, it ranged between 140 and 170 kg per capita per annum. Between 1979 and 1994, it went up to 180 kg per capita per annum. After the reform period, foodgrain availability declined sharply to 150 kg per annum. There is a considerable shortfall in the actual requirement and availability of foodgrains. In the context of the current agrarian crisis, this trend poses a grave danger to communities already afflicted with hunger.

Adding to this already grim scenario is the new challenge of climate change. This year’s see-saw with the monsoon is a pre-runner of what awaits us ahead. According to climate estimates, agriculture in the productive areas of South Asia will be among the most adversely affected. As temperatures rise, the growing season is expected to shorten with decreases in agricultural productivity of up to 40 per cent. The worst brunt of climate change on food production will be borne by farmers in rain-fed areas.

Coping with the impact of climate change on agriculture will require careful management of resources like land, water and biodiversity. A large-scale public education and training programme is necessary to help farmers cope with the changes coming from global warming. Nothing in their experience has prepared them for the rapidly evolving, anthropogenic climate turbulence.

The disbanded extension service in the agriculture sector must be resumed urgently. Training and capacity building programmes must help to increase sensitivity to the problems that agriculture will face and understand its causes. At present, there is little understanding among rural communities about global warming and they are facing difficulties adjusting to the unpredictable changes that are throwing their long-held cropping patterns out of gear. The new extension service must be geared to teaching farmers how to adapt their agriculture to the new weather conditions that will negatively impact their food and livelihood security.

Not just farmers, it will be necessary to provide education and training to a range of actors. This would include policymakers, Panchayati Raj institutions, the banking sector, civil society groups, corporate executives and others, in the theory and practice of adapting agriculture to climate turbulence. Such capacity building will enable the successful adoption of adaptation strategies at policy and implementation levels.

There will have to be a fundamental strategy change in food production. Practices in agriculture will need to shift from intensive, mechanised, water-demanding agriculture to a more sustainable, conservative agriculture that grows crops using less water. “More crop per drop of water” is a strategy recommended to tackle drought. The same approach is applicable in a wider sense when addressing the challenges posed by global warming.

The first step in adapting agriculture to cope with climate change will be to diversify the farm production model to minimise risk and obtain the most benefits from available resources. Such sustainable models will have to include crops, livestock, poultry and where possible, fisheries and agro forestry.

As the monsoon rainfall gets reduced and more uncertain and receding glaciers reduce water flows in rivers, farmers must learn to make maximum use of available water. Rainwater harvesting and traditional water storage structures such as farm ponds, wells and tanks will have to be revived. Watershed development and catchment area recharge treatments to allow for aquifer replenishment will have to be undertaken on priority basis in all ecosystems. As rainfall becomes less reliable, water conserved in tanks, ponds and wells will provide life-saving irrigation to crops.

Soil management will need to focus on increasing organic matter to improve soil nutrition and water retention capacity, thus increasing crop productivity. The eco-system approach to agricultural production using crop rotation, maintaining an appropriate balance of soil nutrients and using an integrative and bio-organic approach to pest management will be effective in coping with rapidly changing farm conditions.

Contour bunding will be useful, especially in the hill areas, to increase water retention in terraced fields and improve crop productivity. It was a central component in regenerating degraded soils in Burkina Faso in West Africa and is credited with as much as a 40 per cent increase in agricultural production the first year after its implementation. Planting hedgerows of leguminous plants, especially in poor soils, which constitute the bulk of the soil in India, is important to fix nitrogen, prevent soil erosion and conserve soil moisture.

Mulching and other types of soil cover is helpful in arresting soil erosion and extending the availability of soil moisture. Mulching has the added benefit of reducing weed populations by up to 60 per cent, saving on weeding costs. None of these are rocket science but they are neglected in our policy and implementation plans. India’s strategy to deal with climate change, encapsulated in the National Action Plan on Climate Change lacks vision and offers no realistic solutions. We need urgently to come up with a policy and framework to protect our agriculture and food production from the onslaught of global warming.

The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org

Source : Deccan Chronicle, October 15, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012



Will agricultural intensification save our natural ecosystems from farmer invasion?

He is the most revered figure in agricultural research – the father of the green revolution.  But the late Norman Borlaug’s influence extends further even than delivering the seeds that have fed the world.  He also established in agricultural and environmental orthodoxy what is known today as the Borlaug hypothesis — the idea that intensifying agriculture is also the key to saving forests and other natural ecosystems from invasion by farmers.

The idea underpins research priorities in agriculture, for which increased yield is to holy grail.  More surprisingly perhaps, it sustains conservationists who want to abandon green notions of low-intensity organic agriculture in favour of giving agriculture its head.

Now the argument is being deployed in the debate over a future global climate change deal.  Some advocates of REDD, which would provide finance for protecting forests as carbon stores, say carbon offsetters should be encouraged to fund intensified farming too.  It is one facet of the push for “climate-smart” agriculture that we will heard again at the next climate talks in Doha later this year.
Lord Nicholas Stern, the British economist behind the highly influential Stern Review on the economics of climate change, puts the Borlaug hypothesis this way: “Cattle pasture in Brazil has only one animal per hectare.  Raise that to two animals and you can save the Amazon rainforest.”
But is it true?  If farming were a zero-sum game, with a simple aim of growing enough food to feed the world, then clearly intensification should spare land for nature.  But market forces may have perverse effects.

The Contrarian View
The counter-argument is that farmers don’t clear forests to feed the world; they clear forests to make money.  So helping farmers become more efficient and productive won’t reduce the threat.  It will increase it, by encouraging them to expand, and increasing their resources to do it.
As Tony Simons, deputy director of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, put it to me a year or so back: “Borlaug thought that if you addressed poverty in the forest border, they’d stop taking their machetes into the forest.  Actually, they get enough money to buy a chainsaw and do much more damage.”

Recent studies give weight to this contrarian view.  Thomas Rudel of Rutgers University, New Jersey, compared national trends in agricultural yields and how much land is under crops.  If Borlaug was right, then countries with fast-rising yields should see less increase in croplands, perhaps even a decrease.  Sadly, he found no such link.

Robert Ewers of the Zoological Society of London reported that increased yields of staple food crops do not spare the land, but stimulated increased planting of other crops, including non-food crops like cotton, rubber and biofuels.  As a result, he concluded, “land sparing is a weak process that only occurs under a limited set of circumstances.”

Economists are not surprised
That’s how markets work, they say.  Arild Angelsen, of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and senior associate at CIFOR, modelled the competing influences and concluded that, contrary to the Borlaug hypothesis, “local yield increases tend to stimulate agricultural encroachment”.
Globalization increases the stimulus.  After all, Brazil’s assault on the Amazon in the late 20th century was driven not by an imperative to feed its own population, but by its successful drive to become the world’s biggest agricultural exporter.  Similarly only a fraction of the palm oil grown on Indonesia’s former forests is for domestic use.

Rudel has suggested that the Borlaug hypothesis is confounded by a modern version of the Jevons paradox.  The 19th century British economist William Jevons pointed out that during the industrial revolution, increased efficiency in coal burning led to more coal being burned, rather than less. Similarly today, more intensive agriculture may stimulate rather than defuse the clearance of land for new farms.

Can the Borlaug hypothesis help tackle climate change?
There are other reasons to question Stern’s suggestion that the Borlaug hypothesis could help tackle climate change.  Even if agriculture did spare forests, it also massively increases farming’s carbon footprint.  Might those emissions swamp any gains from protecting forests?
A study by Jennifer Burney and others at Stanford in 2010 suggested not.  After balancing both influences, she estimated a net benefit to the atmosphere from agricultural intensification of 590 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the past 50 years.

But surely that depends on the timescale you use.  A mature forest is can only sequester so much carbon, while agricultural emissions continue for as long as the land is cultivated.  Run the clock forward and the balance may be reversed.

None of this is to say that intensification won’t be needed.  The world has to be fed, after all. But the simple belief that deploying agribusiness to drive up farm yields will deliver forest protection seems economically illiterate.  And the even simpler notion that investment in the intensification of agriculture can have a direct carbon payback seems dangerous folly.

About the Author:
Fred Pearce is a journalist and author based in London, UK.  He writes regularly for New Scientist magazine, the Guardian newspaper and Yale e360 web site.  His books include Peoplequake, When the Rivers Run Dry and, mostly recently, The Land Grabbers.