Environment: Climate Change

Food security at stake

THE Global Climate Risk Index indicates that countries that lie in the tropical zone are most vulnerable to climate risk. Within this zone, very few countries are as populous as India.

Food security at stake

THE Global Climate Risk Index indicates that countries that lie in the tropical zone are most vulnerable to climate risk. Within this zone, very few countries are as populous as India. The population of Indonesia and Brazil, the next most populous, is only one-fifth of India’s, while that of Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ethiopia, the next ranked populous nations in this zone, is lesser. At the same time, Indonesia and Brazil are relatively better off than India as per their per capita GDP (purchasing power parity basis) according to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) estimates — 1.5 to 1.7 times higher than that of India. Moreover, India’s Gini coefficient of income distribution rose from 45 in 1990 to 51 in 2013, indicating the growing gap between the rich and poor and hence, the growing vulnerability of its poor to defend themselves against externalities like climate shocks. Every climate-related incident displaces people owing to its impact on livelihoods and economic opportunities, making the rural-to-urban migration in India an even more challenging issue. Take the case of the large-scale migration of farmers from climate change-afflicted Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh to Guntur and Vijayawada, where the construction sector absorbs the rural migrants.

Economic growth, critical to create jobs and livelihoods in a country of India’s population, is estimated to have been hit by 31 per cent owing to global warming. The Indian Meteorological Department’s Climate of India report termed 2018 the sixth warmest year in the country’s history since 1901, with all the previous five warmest years occurring within the last decade itself. While the average temperature in the country from 1901 to 2018 was 0.6°C above the pre-industrial baseline (i.e. 1850-1900), it was 0.4°C above the 1981-2010 average, indicating the surge seen in this millennium. According to data of the Global Carbon Project and the IMF which measured greenhouse gas intensity in 2017, i.e. CO2 emissions relative to GDP, India ranked better than only Russia and South Africa from among its developing country peers in terms of territorial emissions (CO2 from fossil fuels, cement, etc.). This is an important indicator as it helps to assess the de-carbonisation of the national economy.

All in all, India is a basket-case for climate impact. It is experiencing increased instances of climate vagaries. It has a huge population that is poorer relative to its peer nations — and its poor have only grown poorer.

The recent report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Special Report on Climate Change and Land, expanded the scope of the challenges of climate crises and greenhouse gas emissions. While the discourse previously mainly surrounded energy, transport, weather and rising sea levels, this report spoke about the contribution of agriculture towards climate change and how climate crises can affect food security unless concerted action is taken. According to the World Resources Institute’s Climate Analysis Indicators Tool, agriculture, at 11 per cent, ranks fourth globally among the sectors contributing towards man-made greenhouse gas emissions, after electricity/heat (31 per cent), transport (15 per cent) and manufacturing/construction (12 per cent). If one adds forestry and other land-use to agriculture, then the combined number moves closer to 20 per cent. India’s efforts to address climate risks and global warming have also tended to concentrate on renewable energy, urban transport and green buildings, and it is now even more imperative that it put renewed focus on agriculture. The Global Hunger Index-2019 ranked India at a dismal 102 across parameters like undernourishment, mortality, child wasting and stunting. India’s index (30.3) was lower than its BRICS peers; it was even lower than its South Asian neighbours (except Afghanistan). This implies a population severely vulnerable to food challenges.

Climate change is likely to impact food security by disrupting food production, availability, access and utilisation. The food grown in any place is a result of long-established climate patterns, any disruption to which is likely to affect food production. Rising temperatures of the earth are posing direct and indirect risks to our food system. Agriculture alone constitutes over 80 per cent of the total emissions in our food systems. Incidences of extreme heat, drought and floods affect crop yields and livestock productivity and hit the stability of our natural and social ecosystems. In the tropical zone, where India is located, the highest declines in crop yield are estimated to occur. Every extreme rainfall and drought incident in India is threatening crop yields, due to its impact on water availability in the fields, soil fertility, pests and plant diseases. As per ISRO’s Desertification and Land Degradation atlas, 30 per cent of India’s land is undergoing degradation, while desertification is setting in across a quarter of its land. The scale of desertification and degradation shot up between 2003-05 and 2011-13, when the surveys were conducted. This indicates that arable land available for future food production is reducing at a time when India is expected to add another 273 million to its population, according to UN’s World Population Prospects report. Since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, the sole focus of India’s policy-makers, agricultural research institutes and colleges has been to increase farm productivity, and any reduction in arable land is only going to affect productivity even more.

This soil degradation directly impacts the amount of carbon our earth is able to contain, since our forests and soil act as a carbon sink — a process called carbon sequestration which pulls carbon from the atmosphere and puts it into the soil. If we are to achieve the IPCC’s mandated target to limit the rise in the earth’s temperature within 1.5°C of the pre-industrial baseline, the process of carbon sequestration would be critical. Also, in a country where over 60 per cent of the farmland is rain-dependant, the alteration to rainfall patterns owing to climate change and the reduction in ground-water levels, especially as seen across large swathes of North India, would only intensify the challenge of water available for farming. As farm income shrinks, it reduces the farmers’ ability to invest further in production — which our chemical fertiliser and pesticide-driven farm system demands — thus creating a double whammy for future food output along with the impacts of climate change on our cropland.

Crop yields apart, extreme heat incidences are said to negatively impact the yield, health and fertility of livestock. Climate change impacts acidification, temperatures and the flow of currents in water bodies, as it leads to the shifting of marine species and negatively impacts water quality. This does not bode well for fisheries and for the livelihoods of the people dependent on it. Considering both livestock and fisheries are key elements of India’s policy to double farm income by 2022, one cannot ignore these two segments either in the discourse on climate impacts and food security. 

Another challenge here for India on the impact of climate risks on agriculture is about farm economics. The average size of the holding of farmers is a mere 1.1 hectares, which means most of India’s farmers are smallholders. The smaller the size of the farm, the less is the farmer’s ability to earn profit and save surplus. Due to the absence of any surplus to cushion him from climate-related unforeseen shocks, just one instance of extreme rain, flood or drought is enough to devastate the economics for such smallholder farmers by ruining the entire season’s crop yield. This implies that climate risks have severe ramifications on livelihoods, and it is no wonder that India is seeing a rise in distressed rural-to-urban migration with farmers trying to find alternative livelihood in construction and other urban sectors.

Climate risk also affects the access and utilisation of food. Making available the food at the right time at the right place is as important as growing it. This poses new challenges for food security. While India has built a reasonably strong supply-chain infrastructure and public distribution system to transport food produce in its ‘farm-to-fork’ chain, climate-related incidences would cause disruptions, as would any reduction in the production. A typical example is the situation seen after any natural disaster like a flood or a cyclone, when the supply-chain infrastructure gets vastly disrupted, preventing the people in the affected districts from getting timely access to food. It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of food is lost due to storage and transport issues, and climate risks only adds to this loss — again something avoidable in a country which has a billion-plus mouths to fill. Tackling food spoilage and waste should be a priority, and the risks of climate incidence to food access makes it an imperative. That would also reduce the pressure on our cropland and productivity, as well as agriculture-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

Hunger pangs

India has a dismal rank on the Global Hunger Index across undernourishment, mortality, child wasting and stunting. Child stunting and wasting relate to the improper utilisation of food, seen more closely among vulnerable communities. The lack of correct nutrition at the right age has a life-long impact on the child’s development. Nutritional deficiencies due to improper access and utilisation can also affect our immune system, gastric system and skin, muscle development and cognitive abilities. Pregnant women become especially vulnerable. All these impede India’s ability to realise its demographic dividend.

It is also important to note that food access and utilisation are not just a rural issue, since otherwise most of the discourse on agriculture is on rural geographies. The impact of climate shocks on food access, and utilisation is seen in India’s cities as well. Thus, the issue of the availability of the correct food — at the correct place and time — is as much an urban concern as it is rural. Forget food, even the receding ground-water table is an urban issue.

There is also discussion that the pressure to improve farm economics is compelling many farmers to shift from staple food crops to cash crops and horticulture, since many of these have shorter planting cycles and fetch a better farm-gate price at the local wholesale markets where the farmers sell their produce to middlemen. Hence, not only are we looking at a situation of a reduction in our bread basket owing to disruptions in food production and supply (since staple grains like rice, wheat, corn and soya comprise the lion’s share of our calorie intake), but we are also looking at a shift in our bread basket, which brings risks to affordability and nutrition. If the production of mass-consumption staple food crops like grains, etc. does not increase in proportion to the growing population, then that again affects food access and utilisation, irrespective of any upside to farm economics. Of course, the country can always import food to make up for shortages in staple crops. But given that India is already reeling under a sizeable bill due to large-scale import of crude oil, gas, coal and gold, any increase in food import would only add north-bound pressure to the trade and current account deficit.

While there has been research, a strategic road map is yet to evolve to realign India’s food production according to climate risks. In order to reduce the climate risks to our food systems, the latter’s adaptive capacity should be developed. Crops tolerant of temperature changes, like millets, must be given more space on India’s farmlands. Alternative incentive models for food production must be devised that do not solely focus on productivity, since this sole focus is a key reason for the degradation of our natural resources and cropland in recent decades. Alternative water sources like micro-irrigation, drip-irrigation and live mulching need to be implemented to improve water-use efficiency and moisture retention in the soil. Alternative rural livelihood opportunities must be promoted through rural-located industries in order to reduce the pressure, and vulnerability, of livelihoods on farming. The small-city strategy must be given a fill-up to reduce the migration to just a few large urban clusters. An effective supply-chain distribution mechanism focused mainly on climate-related incidents like disasters would help secure access and utilisation of food, to some extent. Adapting the supply-chain would also involve the collection of crop residue for live mulching in the farms for the next season, which would reduce the risks of crop burning — a key reason for the smoky haze over North India every November.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the capacity to adapt is limited, and mitigation must be given equal focus even if mitigation strategies entail longer gestation periods and require larger investments and research. Only if we combine adaptation and mitigation can we truly reduce the risks of climate change to our food security. One example of this is Abdul Latif Jameel’s Poverty Lab workshop built on convergence research. This workshop involved 46 experts from agriculture, climate, engineering, economics and natural sciences to understand the relationship between climate change and agriculture. Such convergence research involving transdisciplinary teams across plant, soil, climate science, agriculture, agri-business, economics, communication, nutrition and public policy could help devise mitigation strategies to address the climate risks to our food systems and future food security. This could include strategies on improving soil fertility, carbon sequestration, developing geo-spatial tools to increase productivity and targeted cropping, improving crop response to high temperatures and drought, risk management approaches and effecting behaviour change about our food choices.

It is also critical to build awareness of the masses about climate change and food security. The lack of awareness and acceptability is one reason whey agriculture has never figured on top of our policy-makers’ and politicians’ agenda. It is high time we change that now, if only for the future food security of India’s ever-increasing and vulnerable population.

The author has worked with traditional and sustainable finance organisations

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