Farmers face up to climate risks in south Asia

Climate change is expected to particularly affect rice, wheat and maize production in India. Copyright: AgriBolo

Small-scale farmers in India and Nepal ‘most vulnerable’ to climate change and while technologies to improve resilience are available, barriers must be tackled, writes Sanjeet Bagcchi for SciDev.Net

In a small village in the Indian state of West Bengal, Badal Ray tends to his 1.5 acres of agricultural land. He used to cultivate seasonal crops – wheat, mustard and maize – but, in the past three years, production plunged, putting him in financial dire straits.

The 48-year-old turned to other employment to lift his earnings, working in the evening as a part-time driver of Toto rickshaws — popular vehicles in India that run on batteries.

One day, while chatting with a passenger — who happened to be an agriculture consultant — Ray expressed his concerns about his crops. The consultant explained that the declines could be due to variations in weather and temperature resulting from climate change. And he suggested a plan to deal with the problems.

“Most of the farmers in south Asia are smallholders whose reserves and adaptive capacities are less and hence they are most vulnerable to climate change,”

Paresh Shirsath, science officer, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security

“I used to cultivate only wheat and mustard in the winter season, but the consultant told me to additionally cultivate vegetables such as tomato, potato and beans in 40 per cent of the land,” says Ray. “He advised me to cultivate marigolds between tomatoes and other vegetables, explaining that marigolds protect the plants [from parasitic nematodes] and at the same time I can sell marigold flowers in the market. He also advised me to use drought- and heat-tolerant seeds for the cultivation of maize.”

Ray followed the consultant’s ideas and within a few months saw a substantial increase in crop productivity. “I’m happy with my earnings now,” says Ray. “Proper guidance from an expert just changed my life.

Food crops at stake

Climate change poses problems for the production of most crops cultivated in India, Nepal and other south Asian countries. Its effects vary from region to region, and depend on the type of crops, time and mode of farming and rainfall, among other things.

“The most adversely affected crops [in India] can be food crops, such as rice, wheat, maize, citrus [fruits], apple,” says Viswanathan Pozhamkandath Karthiayani, a professor of economics and sustainability at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham research institute, in Kerala, India.

Climate change is expected to particularly affect rice, wheat and maize production in India, according to the ministry of agriculture. “Climate change can have negative effects on irrigated crop yields across agro-ecological regions both due to temperature rise and changes in water availability,” a ministry statement explains.

With respect to wheat yields, a recent study in the journal Climatic Change shows that in India, “1°C increase in average daily maximum and minimum temperatures tends to lower yields by 2 to 4 per cent each”.

Meanwhile, in some mountainous regions of Nepal, climate change can have “positive impacts on yields, particularly on wheat”, according to a study in Environment, Development and Sustainability. “However, rice and maize yield in the mid-hills and Terai region significantly reduced with increasing temperature,” researchers found.

Smallholders ‘vulnerable’

Many small-scale farmers in India and Nepal, hindered by a lack of awareness and availability of expert guidance, have seen a sharp decline in agricultural production, attributed to climate change. The resulting financial loss has driven many, like Ray, to take up part-time jobs or switch to other professions.

“As more than 80 per cent of Indian farmers belong to small and marginal landholding categories, the declines [in the yield] of crops would seriously erode their economic and financial conditions, affecting livelihoods,” Karthiayani tells Scidev.Net.

Paresh Shirsath, science officer at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), in New Delhi, says: “Most of the farmers in south Asia are smallholders whose reserves and adaptive capacities are less and hence they are most vulnerable to climate change.”

Belo Monte 2 by PAC
Indian farmers have adopted strategies like crop rotation to combat climatic changes. Credit: AgriBolo

Investing in change

However, this dismal situation for smallholders is changing gradually in these countries, with various organisations — including government and non-government, profitable and non-profit — coming forward to support the small-scale farming of climate-resilient crops.

Climate-resilient crops exhibit stable production despite climate-related stresses, says Shirsath, citing the examples of millet and sorghum, which show tolerance against drought.

Karthiayani believes that so-called climate-resilient crops are elusive; it is more important to implement measures that “adapt and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change”, he says.

Crop management strategies commonly adopted by Indian farmers to combat climatic changes, says Karthiayani, include crop rotation, use of drought-tolerant seeds, cultivating short season crops, shifting to new crops, legume intercropping, crop diversification and changing planting dates.

Climate-resilient inputs

The New Delhi-based ICAR-National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research (ICAR- NIAP) carries out research and field-related activities on climate-resilient small-scale farming. It offers potential ways to strengthen farmers’ response to climate change, explains principal scientist Naveen P Singh.

“ICAR-NIAP has taken [up] several research initiatives to address climate change issues in agriculture, field-level challenges in terms of lack of awareness among the farmers, and barriers to the adoption of suitable technology for mitigating and adapting to [climate changes],” Singh tells SciDev.Net.

The institute’s policy paper states that such barriers include difficulty accessing research and education, and delayed weather information, as well as limited access to finance.

ICAR-NIAP’s director, Suresh Pal, says these barriers are “major concerns” when it comes to combating the damaging effects of climate change.

Rajasthan-based AgriBolo is one of a number of Indian start-ups trying to address these concerns. It works to support climate-smart agriculture aimed at saving smallholder farmers from inadequate crop yields.

Kirti Gupta, a spokeswoman for the company, says it is assisting rural communities through its supply of climate-resilient seeds to farmers. “Initiatives like the supply of climate-resilient inputs can help smallholder farmers by [enabling] them to sow and acquire output even in challenging external conditions,” she says.

Belo Monte 2 by PAC
Smallholder farmers plant crops that are viable in the uncertain climatic conditions. Credit: AgriBolo

The organisation reaches farmers via mobile phones, providing them with weather information, as well as experts’ tips on soil nutrition, climate-resilient practices and the use of fertilisers.

AgriBolo works with more than 250,000 farmers in the states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Maharastra, among others. Many farmers have also benefited from the organisation’s facility for online trading of agricultural products.

Early warnings

In Nepal, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) provides grass-roots training to farmers and policymakers on advanced climate risk management strategies.

Agricultural activities in this country are mostly carried out in hilly areas, where sudden flash floods often damage the agricultural system. To combat this, ICIMOD has installed an early flood warning system, and established small check dams “to reduce the speed of water flow and minimise the erosive power of runoff”.

The community-based flood early warning system works through a simple, low-cost technology which aims to be accessible to all. The system has two units: a river-bank-based transmitter located at a point where water levels would rise to in a flood, and a house-based receiver unit, located in a nearby village and run by a ‘caretaker’.

When river water increases before a possible flood, the transmitter unit sends a signal to the receiver unit and the ‘caretaker’ immediately forwards it, by mobile phone or SMS, to the downstream communities.

These are among an increasing number of initiatives that have sprung up to support climate-resilient small-scale farming in India and Nepal, through research, guidance for farmers, agri-clinics and access to data.

However, as Gupta points out, “promotion of climate-resilient agriculture [among] smallholder farmers is challenging; farmers do not accept changes [in] farming methods easily”. She adds: “The availability of quality inputs and technology to remote areas is a challenge [that needs] to be tackled.”

This article originally appeared in SciDev.Net.
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