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

1 comment: