Thursday July 07, 2022

Food in the time of climate change

October 04, 2018

Worldwide, food production is responsible for almost 24 percent (IPCC assessment report 2014) of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, surpassing the industrial and transport sector.

The world’s population will suffer from the most immediate effects of global warming right at their dinner table. We are already facing the repercussions of climate change. For instance, Pakistan faced a 6.5 percent drop in the production of staple crops like wheat, maize and corn in 2016 mainly due to the rising temperatures.

Climate change is no more an abstract notion, but something whose effects are becoming more evident day by day. Climate change is threatening food security and we will struggle to meet the requirements of food consumption sustainably. It is apparent that the country’s agricultural resources are deteriorating. While the most significant pillar of our economy is agriculture and it is the largest source of direct foreign investment, this sector seriously lacks good governance and management. For instance, the demand to increase agricultural yields is challenging food security and sustainability even more.

These apparent challenges are telling us that the norms and foundations of our current food system are flawed since the agriculture sector is contributing to GHG emissions significantly and is getting affected by climate change at the same time. Breakthroughs in technology and the mechanisation of the food production have no doubt increased the average production of crops, mostly in developing nations. On the other hand, though, this has deprived the majority of small holders from their basic rights. It is arguable that, while the green revolution brought some achievements in the form of science and technology, at the same time it was the main cause of bringing new challenges to food systems – especially in South Asia.

The green revolution, seen as technically sound and progressive, is not enough to cater to the challenges we are going to face in our near future. This is why we need to change our direction towards new concepts both in technology and in policymaking. We direly need to introduce new pathways where small farmers can produce their agricultural commodities sustainably under these dwindling resources and water-stressed conditions.

Syed Mohammad Ali, renowned development anthropologist, says that the top-down model of relying on bigger farmers, and the use of expensive inputs (high-yield seeds, pesticides and fertilisers) to grow water-intensive cash crops such as sugar and cotton, is problematic. Instead, we need to focus on making smaller farmers more self-reliant and efficient and start growing more appropriate crops which require less water and can be grown using indigenous/organic methods. We also must pay heed to the plight of landless farmers (sharecroppers, seasonal and daily-wage farm workers, including women) who comprise the bulk of the rural workforce.

Further when asked about the green revolution and its implications in Pakistan, Ali says that the green revolution was problematic as it was an elite-led strategy which may have increased yield but degraded land and disempowered many farmers, including sharecroppers who were depeasantised and who had to migrate to urban areas, creating unmanageable urban concentrations.

In Pakistan we are still using a capital-intensive green-revolution model of agricultural growth, which is not very sustainable with the increasing water scarcity we face. Besides water management (drip irrigation and lining of watercourses etc), we have to think about growing other crops – which may be difficult given how many prominent politicians still own sugar mills where current practices are water intensive. Per capita water availability has decreased considerably over the years.

We need to adapt to climate change requirements with a different level of thinking and planning since even in best-case scenarios emission reduction didn’t make any considerable difference to our social vulnerabilities. In fact, reduction schemes ended up aggravating social susceptibilities. So, it is imperative for researchers and decision-makers to incorporate local knowledge into their decisions to increase the adaptive capacity of small land-holders.

Likewise, agro-biodiversity that was once a central tenet for small farmers, has reduced two-folds after the green revolution. A 70-year-old farmer named Abdul Sattar from district Pakpattan when asked about monoculture farming says: “We were so happy and satisfied with our small world. Though average yield was a bit low, it was enough for us. We were doing good... we had our own seeds.” He further adds that now that the government has imposed so many restrictions they [farmers] cannot do anything on their own, and large landlords benefit from it all.

Likewise, Muhammad Siddique who owns a small land in the same district says that mechanisation in agriculture has brought farmers nowhere. He feels that our self resilient, ecological stable system is no more. Our traditional cropping is now substituted with monoculture cropping and the introduction of alien HYVs of wheat, corn and rice has deprived of millions of small farmers their basic food system.

Global food prices hiked in 2007-2008. This, followed by the global economic recession in 2009, highlighted that the green revolution is adequate in its capacity to regenerate and provide constant and sufficient food sustainably. According to the World Food Summit Plan of Action, undernourishment is one of the key features that indicate food insecurity. For instance, according to the FAO, one billion people went undernourished in 2010; from this one billion, 578 million were from Asia.

According to the National Nutrition survey 2011, 58 percent of households went malnourished every year. These statistic shows that Pakistan is most prominently hit by the global food crisis and is likely to suffer even more drastically in case of no change in the current climate-change prone food systems and policies.

Defeating hunger, combating malnutrition, alleviating food volatility and dealing with climate change reside in the sustainable production of food, which is possible with some radical changes. This would be a change that reinforces the rights of small land-holders equally and that can bring incentive into the current scenario. Studies have shown that optimum production of most of the staple crops can be obtained with small units of production and can reduce poverty.

The writer is an environmentalist.


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