Food security at stake

Originally published in The Tribune here

Written by Sourajit Aiyer

The Global Climate Risk Index suggests 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 that of India, while that of Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ethiopia, the next ranked populous nations in this zone, is lesser. At the same time, both Indonesia and Brazil and relatively better-off than India if one looks at their per capita GDP (PPP basis) according to the IMF’s estimates, which was ~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. It is no wonder that 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 challenging issue. Take the case of the large-scale migration of farmers from climate-afflicted Rayalaseema districts 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% owing to global warming. The Indian Meteorological Department’s Climate of India report called 2018 as 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 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial baseline (i.e. 1850-1900 AD), it was 0.4 degree Celsius above the 1981-2010 average, indicating the surge seen in this millennium. According to data of the Global Carbon Project and 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 amongst its developing country peers in terms of territorial emissions (CO2 from fossil fuels, cement, etc.). This is an important indicator as it helps assess the de-carbonization of the national economy.

Greenhouse Gas Intensity – CO2 tonnes per $Mn of GDP, 2017

Tribune sourajitSource: Global Carbon Project 2018 (Territorial Emissions data) & IMF WEO Economic data

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

The recent report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 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% ranks fourth globally amongst the sectors contributing towards manmade greenhouse gas emissions, after electricity/heat (31%), transport (15%) and manufacturing/construction (12%). If one adds forestry and other land-use to agriculture, then the combined number moves closer to 20%.

Major sectors contributing towards manmade greenhouse gas emissions

Tribune sourajitSource: Climate Analysis Indicators Tool, World Resources Institute

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 a renewed focus on agriculture. As it is, the Global Hunger Index 2019 ranked India at a dismal 102 across parameters like undernourishment, mortality, child wasting and stunting. Not only was India’s index at 30.3 lower than its BRICS peers, it was even lower than its South Asian neighbours (all except Afghanistan). This implies a population already severely vulnerable to food challenges.

Global Hunger Index by Severity, 2019

Tribune sourajitSource: 2019 Global Hunger Index

Climate change is likely to impact food security by disrupting food production, availability, access and utilization. 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 is putting direct and indirect risks to our food-system. Agriculture alone constitutes over 80% of the total emissions in our food-systems. Incidences of extreme heat, drought and floods automatically affects crop yields and livestock productivity and hits the stability of our natural and social ecosystems. Coming back to the tropical zone, where India is located, the highest declines in crop yield are also estimated to occur in this zone. 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 disease. As per ISRO’s Desertification and Land Degradation atlas, 30% 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 only 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 on India’s policymakers, agricultural research institutes and colleges has been to increase farm productivity, and any reduction in arable land is only going to pressurise 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 degree Celsius of the pre-industrial baseline, then the process of carbon sequestration would be critical. Also, in a country where over 60% 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 only reduces the farmers’ ability to invest further into production – which our chemical fertilizers and pesticides 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 pieces 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 around farm economics. The average size of the holding of farmers is a mere 1.1 hectare, which means most of  India’s farmers are smallholders. Smaller the size of the farm, less is the farmer’s ability to turn a profit and save a 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 climate risks have severe ramifications on livelihoods, and it is no wonder India is seeing a rise in distressed rural-to-urban migration with farmers trying to find alternate livelihood in construction and other urban sectors.

Average holding of agriculture land (hectare) in 2015-16

Tribune sourajitSource: Lok Sabha questions, PIB

Climate risk also affects the access and utilization 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 to the production. A typical example is the situation seen after any natural disaster like a flood or cyclone, when the supply-chain infrastructure gets vastly disrupted preventing the people in the afflicted districts to get timely access to the food. It is estimated up to 30% 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 billion-plus mouths to fill. Tackling food spoilage and waste should be a priority, and the risks of climate incidence to food access only makes it an imperative. That would also reduce the pressure on our cropland and productivity, as well as agriculture-induced greenhouse gas emissions, if one considers the arithmetic.

Moving to food utilisation, we spoke about India’s dismal rank in the Global Hunger Index across undernourishment, mortality, child wasting and stunting in an earlier paragraph. Child stunting and wasting relate to the improper utilisation of food, seen more closely amongst 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 utilization 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 realize its demographic dividend.

It is also important to note that food access and utilization are not just a rural issue, since otherwise most of the discourse on agriculture is on the rural geographies. The impact of climate shocks on food access, and utilization, 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 some 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 to our bread-basket owing to disruptions to food production and supply (since staple grains like rice, wheat, corn and soya comprises the lion’s share of our calorie intake), but we are also looking at a shift in our bread-basket, which brings with the 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 in this country, then that again affects food access and utilization, irrespective of any upside to farm economics. Of course, the country can always import food to make up for any shortages in staple crops. But given that India is already reeling under a sizable import 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 some research, a strategic roadmap is yet to evolve to realign India’s food production according to climate risks. In order to reduce the climate risks on our food-systems, the adaptive capacity of our food-systems should be developed. Crops tolerant of temperature changes, like millets, must be given more space in India’s farmlands. Alternate 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. Alternate water sources like micro-irrigation, drip-irrigation and live mulching need to be implemented to improve water-use efficiency and improve moisture retention in the soil. Alternate rural livelihood opportunities must be promoted through rural-located industries, etc. 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 the 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 around northern 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 the Abdul Latif Jameel’s Poverty Lab’s 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 the 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.

Last but not the least, it is critical to build the awareness of the common masses around climate change and food security. The lack of awareness and acceptability is one reason why agriculture has never figured in the top of our policymakers and politicians’ files. It is high time we change that now, if only for the future food security of India’s ever-increasing and vulnerable population.

Follow Us on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin or Web to receive regular updates! 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s