Climate Change Clouds Farmers

Apr 15th, 2014 | By | Category: News, Vulnerability, Weather

Indian farmers are keeping fingers crossed. Will the monsoon this kharif (south-west monsoon season) be normal, above normal (like last year), or sub-normal? One has received ominous reports of an El Nino, which means, India will receive much less rainfall, and that, could be a repeat of 2009 when we had a severe drought. India, long held as a “hotspot” of climate change, and the Indian subcontinent are at the vanguard of the worst impact for food security and human livelihood. Almost 70 per cent of our land is prone to drought, 12 per cent to floods, and 8 per cent to cyclones. An aberration in one of these will mean that Indian agriculture will nosedive.

As per the fifth assessment of the second working group, which was released by the Inter-Governmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), millions of south Asians will be severely affected by climate change by 2100, because of the absence of adaptation to droughts, cyclones, coastal flooding and glacier melts. In November 2013 the IPCC working group I established that human-induced climate change is leading to increasing atmospheric temperatures, rising sea levels and ocean warming.

Very recent research reports revealed, for the first time, that the quality of food crops is being adversely affected by climate changes. Field data from the University of California, Davis campus, USA, have clearly shown, for the first time, that elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (from global warming) inhibit the ability of plants to properly assimilate the absorbed nitrates. Plants can only make use of nitrogen, the most important nutrient in crop nutrition, supplied either through chemical fertilisers like urea or organic manures, as nitrates. Elevated carbon levels in the atmosphere inhibit the conversion of nitrates into proteins in field-grown crops like wheat, which can have very far-reaching adverse impact on human nutrition. This is a very dangerous trend. The great importance of this research can be understood when we think about wheat, which provides nearly one-fourth of all protein in global human diet. Almost a similar situation has been observed with rice, barley and potato. Nitrate assimilation in these crops also show a decline of about 8 per cent under elevated carbon dioxide in atmosphere.

The central message of the above observations is that without adaptation Indian agriculture will greatly suffer due to climate change, and this will exacerbate current poverty levels and trigger new poverty traps in vulnerable areas in South Asia, especially India. South Asia already has the highest number of food-insecure people with 300 million undernourished of which India has 250 million, that is more than 71 per cent of the total. More specifically, producing enough food sustainably to meet the increasing demands, coupled with shrinking resources of land and water, will throw up unprecedented challenges.

As an example, it has been observed through research that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in ambient temperature, 4-5 million tonnes of wheat will be lost in India if we continue with the currently practised land management techniques. No revolutionary changes in either soil or water management are in place. The impact on productivity of rice in Punjab, the “cradle” of the green revolution in India, has shown that all other climatic variables remaining constant, ambient temperature hikes of one, two and three degree Celsius will reduce the grain yield of rice by 5.4, 7.4 and 25.1 per cent respectively. Similar losses are also projected in other crops like mustard, kharif sorghum, fruits and vegetables.

In India, most small and marginal farmers subsist on rain-fed agriculture, while the IPCC report warns of an increase in extreme rainfall over central India. Likely variations in rainfall patterns have very drastic consequences on production and livelihood of farmers. This will require better water management techniques and investment in storage infrastructure.

Besides, warming of ocean and sea water that will affect the wealth and distribution of freshwater and marine fish would force fishermen to risk it by going further into the seas.

Small and marginal farmers live in a very uncertain environment. Though they might be able to adapt to short-term climate changes, they are not geared to meet the challenges of long-term changes that threaten their ability to earn, plan and invest. Those who live with uncertainty have less money for food, farm investments and a reduced capacity and willingness to try new practices and technologies. Thus, it is necessary to encourage a shift to resource saving, smart agriculture practices starting with strategies such as changes in sowing dates of crops, use of different crop varieties and better risk management strategies, through effective warning weather information systems and innovative crop insurance policies, all of which can reduce the vulnerability of rural communities.

Climate-smart approaches can benefit one another to be ultimately fruitful to farmers through higher income, better resilience and sustainability. Adaptation is highly context-specific and needs careful study of local conditions. In this context, it must be emphasised that food production alone contributes up to 14 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. A substantial amount of this comes from nitrous oxide, a by-product from excessive urea application, and the nitrous oxide molecules stay in the atmosphere for an average of 120 years before being removed or destroyed through chemical reactions. A pound of nitrous oxide causes over 300 times more to global warming than a pound of carbon dioxide, commonly believed to be the main culprit in global warming. Agricultural soil management is the largest source of nitrous oxide emissions in the US, which practises highly factory-type agriculture, accounting for 69 per cent of total emissions in 2011. An equally harmful and potent gas from agriculture is methane.

If India has to effectively meet the climate challenges, climate adaptation must be integrated into poverty alleviation policies that bolster good governance and institutions. This calls for great dedication of those vested with the task of meeting challenges posed by climate change.

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