What can be done today to protect South Asia’s agriculture from climate change impacts occurring in 2020?
To find crafty and viable solutions to this question, experts from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka joined forces with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) South Asia, in Dhaka, Bangladesh in late February of this year.
CCAFS facilitators Sophie Alvarez and Christine Jost led the participants through the process. They used the fascinating technique of working backwards from the actions needed to maintain climate neutrality in 2020, and search for research and policy interventions needed today to achieve this goal.
There is a great deal of responsibilities on climate change expert as they have to model what direction climate change could take; assess what adverse impact that would have for agriculture and smallholder farmers in the region; and then develop interventions to deal with them - scientific, policy-level and institutional interventions.
For farmers, climate change is an extra burden, that sits on top of all other worries and risk that she has to carry. Because the truth of the matter is, with or without climate change, there are already a number of uncertainties within agriculture.
Climate change and agriculture nexus
Climate change could affect agriculture adversely. Agriculture also produces greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The process of reducing farm induced GHG emission could adversely affect food production and food security within countries.
Agriculture’s contribution in the total greenhouse gas emission basket is estimated at 12.5%, but the same sector supports more than half of the population in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The number of families that derive their livelihood from agriculture is also disproportionately high when compared to sector’s contribution to the national GDPs. In India, for instance, agriculture contributes 14% to the GDP, while it supports between 55- 60% of the population.
Senior experts from the national agricultural research systems and CGIAR Centers in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka assessed the current opportunities, challenges, policies and institutions for implementing climate-resilient agriculture in the region. They also assessed current CCAFS research and future plans for getting the maximum impact in the region.
Thinking about short-term adaptation
The primary concern is on enabling farmers to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change, so called short-term adaptation. More than coping in the long term, where impacts of climate change are still uncertain, focus should be on dealing with current climate variability. If farmers can be helped to deal with the fallout from current climate variability – drought, floods, pests and diseases – then their ability to deal with climate change over the long term is better.
Farmers also need to be helped to reduce greenhouse gases from their fields. For instance, growing rice in flooded paddy fields generates methane; farm animals with their multi-chambered guts also generate methane; when the soil is dry nitrogenous fertilizers vaporise as nitrous oxide; and burning of agricultural residue produces carbon dioxide. The challenge is that mitigation has to be done without impacting farm incomes and food security.
It is not as if climate change has not been discussed at the national policy levels in these countries. Most of the South Asian countries have developed national climate change action plans and have also reported progress to the UNFCCC Secretariat. India, for instance, has the national action plan, initiated by the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change. Similarly, Sri Lanka has a national policy and a national adaptation strategy. The problem is of convergence of the national policies and actions for the farmers.
Outline: What needs to be done
Even as climate-forecasting models are getting better, converting predictions for larger areas for smaller locations is still a work in progress. Crop varieties that are more suited for the developing climate can then be tailor-made. Similarly, different crops can be farmed and even the land use systems in which the crops can be modified to meet the changing environment. These changes will help farmers deal with current climate variability as it evolves into a longer-term change.
Index-based insurance is being considered to deal with the impacts of extreme weather events due to climate change. Farming regions are benchmarked using yield and climate parameters, and when an extreme weather event happens, all farmers in the region are compensated using the index.
How can the farmers know the larger picture when an extreme weather event is happening? There are already pilot projects on reaching relevant information to farmers through the now-ubiquitous cell phone. These pilots would need scaling up to reach more areas as the impact of climate change becomes more evident.
Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is more difficult since it has to be done without adversely affecting production. Changing practices such as reduced tilling of the soil and alternate wetting and drying of paddy fields can help reduce emissions. Research is ongoing to develop livestock breeds that produce less methane and also developing fodder additives that can reduce methane generation.
Diversifying crops including tree species not only helps in capturing more carbon but also gives a safety net to the farmer when an extreme weather event strikes. It is unlikely that all crops will fail at the same time.
Though it is certain that climate is changing and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, it is still uncertain how much and in what fashion it will change. The challenge for research, policy and implementation is to remain one step ahead of the process so that farmers’ livelihoods and national food security are not compromised.
This story was written by guest blogger S. Gopikrishna Warrier, who is a regional environment manager with Panos South Asia and was a participant at the workshop. The article is an opinion piece from Mr. Warrier. It was first published in Hindu Business Line newspaper.