Tag Archives: climate change

Smallholder Farmers Most Vulnerable to Climate Change

cofcl For some time now, we have been aware that coffee farmers have been facing the challenges of climate change; either from too much rain or from drought. Coffee crops are also being attacked by coffee rust which thrives in the warmer temperatures we are experiencing today. Colombia was one of the countries worst affected by this issue but the Colombian Coffee federation has invested on a large scale in rust resistant varieties, thus providing a solution and some hope for the farmers. In Brazil, large coffee producers have moved operations to cooler areas to combat the rising temperatures. But lost in all this is the small holder coffee farmer, often the supplier of the fair trade coffee we prefer as a better option for the planet.

While our choice at the cafe makes us feel we did the right thing, the reality might be different, with the farmer often at the losing end of a deal with middle men and has limited access to resources to deal with the problems facing coffee cultivation. This is an important consideration in any discussion on climate change: the bigger economies/groups with greater resources will at least have the chance to adopt some measures to combat the impact of changing climate; but is is those with the least resources and access, whether it is nations or communities within a country that are most at risk.

Also, can we acknowledge that climate change is not like any other problem that we have faced in the past? It is a challenge to the way we have lived on this planet for so long and its impact will be colossal so it is only logical that we employ all options to deal with this crisis. Those small holder coffee farmers facing the prospect of losing their livelihoods could benefit from solutions offered by biotechnology. In a better world, we would  be open to options that science can offer and not be held back by unfounded fears. At this point, the future looks pretty grim, we are going to need some coffee to deal with that!

 

Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net

 

#Farming Friday 10: Farming in the Time of Climate Change

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“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the teacup opens,

A lane to the land of the dead.” – W.H. Auden

Climate change presents a unique challenge to the way we live on our planet. Today’s edition looks at this from a farmer’s point of view.

Also, tonight is the first episode of “Years of Living Dangerously”. Please watch if you can, and share what you felt about the links between climate change and the food system.

 

“Years of Living Dangerously”: Climate Change in our World Today

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Yesterday I watched the première episode of the series “Years Of Living Dangerously”. I had heard a lot about it and was curious to see if it would touch on  any links to agriculture/food system. It started off with Harrison Ford, one of the celebrity correspondents helping to tell the climate change story, taking off in a plane repurposed by NASA to collect samples of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Other aspects of the story unfolded as we visited Plainview, Texas where long years of drought decimated the cattle and shut down the local meat-packing factory, rendering people unemployed; to Indonesia where centuries old forest growth is being cut down everyday to make room for palm oil plantations; and to Syria where the roots of the current conflict are traced back to a devastating drought that displaced farmers and forced people into extreme poverty. (I wrote about Syria earlier here).

The science of climate change is well presented and the most fascinating part of the hour, for me, was watching  Dr. Katherine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University explain how her personal faith and  her work in climate change coexist. Often, communication between scientists and the public is less than successful so it was great to see this work well here. The question of palm oil plantations is a fraught one and it points toward a very difficult challenge: getting people to change their habits. Palm oil appears as an ingredient in a variety of  products ranging from Nutella to soap and is crucial to the profit lines of many companies. It is these business interests which ensure that the burning down of forests continues (thereby releasing carbon into the atmosphere and lowering the ability of forests to absorb carbon) and they are strong enough to push their agenda ahead.  While disappointment and frustration at this situation is justified, I do think this part of the puzzle would benefit from a bit of reflection. If there was a time for calm conversation,for careful expression of opinions it is this time. Countries like India, Indonesia and others often complain about developed nations speaking loudest and that needs to be avoided in the interest of finding solutions for all. Going back to the habits issue: if the production side is intractable can we try to reduce consumption of products containing palm oil thereby reducing making it less profitable? That does not seem easy, either.

The piece on Syria connected the dots between  prolonged drought, the struggle for resources for survival, and social violence.From Turkey, across the border into Syria, we got a riveting glimpse of the people at the center of the struggle, people like the commander of Syrian fighters who used to be a cotton farmer and whose comment stayed with me long after I heard it: “Starving makes you do anything.”

This, then, is the future: unpredictable and severe weather events leading to a struggle for resources (land, water, food), spread of diseases leading to public health crises and escalating social conflict. What are we going to do about it?  We seem to be still arguing over who did what and when, while the clock is ticking down to disaster. Sure, adaptation and mitigation efforts are being made but as this article argues, a challenge like this deserves an extraordinary response. After all, the future of the planet and its people depends on what we do today.

This episode of “Years of Living Dangerously” left me wishing that it was available for all to see and not restricted to one channel. Based on how well made this episode was, I want to know all the stories. Indeed, I would have “binge-watched” it, if that were possible! In the meantime, you can watch the first episode online here.

Food Prices on the Rise

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So food prices are on the rise …again! And it looks like they might continue on that path given the pessimistic outlook for wheat in the US given the dry growing conditions. In addition, the situation in Ukraine spells uncertainly for the world wheat market. As I read more about this I also discovered the interesting fact that farmers in Ukraine have apparently breached a ban on GMOs and are growing GM soy and corn in response to market demand!

Food Security and Ecology in India

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In India last year, there was an intense debate on the proposed Food Security Bill, centering mostly around the impact on the national budget and the mechanism of distributing extra supplies of food grains to consumers throughout the country. Parliament eventually passed the Bill but the question remains: is this really the food security initiative that will serve people best? For the rural population, which is primarily involved in agriculture, food security is not merely a matter of entitlement to a certain amount of cash or food grains; but is reflected in the existence of an available, accessible and assured source of food that will hold steady in the face of stresses and shocks to the food system. It is not just about hunger, it is about the ability to rely on a source of food in a stable way.

Traditionally, the food system for rural families comprises not only what they grow and the livestock they raise, but also what they extract from forests, streams and the surrounding landscape. The ecosystem can provide food directly (edible plants and animal and also medicinal plants), these can also be sold and the income used to purchase other food products; forests also provide firewood that is crucial for cooking (an adequate supply is required, for example, to cook proteins such as beans and meat which would help improve quality of diet). In terms of production, forests provide a habitat for pollinators, maintain/reduce soil erosion and fertility and mangroves and coastal forests reduce the impact of flooding to ensure stability in crop production and fish supply. Rural people, therefore, rely on the surrounding system for supplementing their diet as well as for their livestock and also to ensure that their crops can flourish. But this rural landscape and  the resources it offers also face degradation from overuse, pollution, deforestation all of which will be exacerbated by climate change. With the spread of urban living and tourism, rural populations without strong land rights are often shut out off lands to which they traditionally had access. It is in this context that a food security policy needs to be assessed. Can rural families count on an accessible, available and assured food supply?

On a broad scale, a balance has to be sought between conservation and production/consumption. Efforts at preserving and conserving the environment can sometimes lead to an artificial split in the landscape with certain areas marked for production and others for conservation. This negates the traditional integrated living patterns of rural people where forests and agricultural production coexist. By making an arbitrary divide in the environment, farmers are now excluded from access to resources that earlier supplemented their nutrition.

A recent World Bank report underlined that India would have to “value its natural resources, and ecosystems to better inform policy and decision-making.” This seems to be in accordance with what the Environmental Policy Report of 2006 which explained that “the dominant theme of this policy is that while conservation of environmental resources is necessary to secure livelihoods and well-being of all, the most secure basis for conservation is to ensure that people dependent on particular resources obtain better livelihoods from the fact of conservation, than from degradation of the resource.” How much of this translates into actual practice is another matter.

In terms of providing support to deal with stresses and shocks without further intensifying ecological degradation; the Food Security Act can be effective. If farmers could rely on this as a source of food, there would be less pressure to draw on an already threatened or depleted environment. This concern is brought into sharper focus as we face the challenge of climate change which would stress the ecosystem. All the effects of a policy that is blind to ecosystems will be further magnified by climate change. It has been estimated that there will a ten per cent extra increase in malnourished children world wide, as a result of climate change. India is particularly vulnerable, according to UNICEF, 1 in 3 malnourished children in the world live in India that makes future projections accounting for climate change of great concern. If food security policy assures them of at least a meal a day at school, that could have a big impact.

On the other hand, the Food Security Act is limited to a few crops and this has ecological implications as well. Due to the increased demand for these crops, farmers would find it profitable to opt for growing only a few major crops such as wheat or rice thus drawing more resources such as water to these two crops and reducing diversity in the production of food.

For an effective food security policy, ensuring access to ecosystem resources is crucial; it is not simply a matter of handing out grains/cash through a public system. An effective food security policy would view people and the ecosystem as integrated and design measures that work across sectors; so conservation/environmental policies would be devised in step with rural food security policy. It would recognize that food security also needs to be climate resilient and stresses brought on by climate change such as drought, and flood which impact access to food can be better managed by ensuring that production policies and conservation efforts are framed with the entire ecosystem in mind.

This post grew out of a Twitter discussion with @IndianBotanists and I thank them for their suggestion and appreciate their patience as this post came to fruition. (Image Courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)

How Math Predicts Revolutions Based on Food Prices

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The point about rising food prices being a factor in social unrest has been explored before but now there is a model that can predict when and where revolutions will occur based on food prices. According to this, when the FAO food price index reaches 210, social unrest is triggered. Among the list of countries are some where this has happened on a large scale(Venezuela is a current example), some where it is still contained (India) and also some surprises (Sweden?!). The author of the study, Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute , points to two major causes for rising food prices: the rise of biofuels and speculation in commodities. And what happens to these two variables will determine if prices will be lower this year. Ethanol mandates are being debated in the US and EU, but speculation is another matter. It is spoken of much less than labeling, or any other food issue of the day.

Consider, also, the impact of climate change. (This was an important factor in the case of Syria, for instance.) Unpredictable weather events, a sudden drought or flood may result in a below average harvest; but higher prices in the global market (fueled by speculation) provide an incentive for exporting most of the crop. This would mean less is available for domestic consumption and  prices would rise for whatever is on the market. If prices were to rise to critical levels, as predicted by this model, social unrest would follow. 

What are the chances of regulating commodity speculation, proposing , for example, some limits for trading? It is difficult, perhaps, to be optimistic on this issue but it has to be highlighted in any conversation on the food system.  Food is a commodity, yes, but it is not like any other commodity. If trading in future, hypothetical, stocks of grain  means people are starving in the present then that is not an acceptable situation and efforts to correct it should not be blocked by purely financial interests.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Can a Rice Gene Save the Banana?

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Can a gene from rice help combat the pathogen that threatens the extinction of bananas? That was just one of the many interesting issues featured in Dr. Pamela Ronald’s lecture at the SAIS Global Issues in Agriculture series. Dr. Ronald is a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. Many of us following the debate on GMOs  might have read her book, “Tomorrow’s Table”, co-authored with her husband, Mr. R.W. Adamchak, who is an organic farmer.

Speaking to a (mostly) non-scientific audience, Dr. Ronald explained in clear terms that growers have been trying to enhance desirable traits in crops forever. The older method of simply crossing Type x with Type y and waiting to see whether the hybrid plant had the desired trait . This method focused on the outward result but modification at the genetic level did take place but was unobserved. Genetic modification today is precise,  and efficient and enables quick and accurate results. In addition, it is backed by years of research data.

Why do we need genetic modification anyway? Consider, Dr. Ronald said, the case of the GM papaya. The papayas grown in Hawaii were attacked by the ringspot virus which devastated the crop, even moving the crop to another island did not help. Ultimately, the plants were “vaccinated” with a dose of the virus which enabled them to resist when the virus actually attacked. And so it is that we still have papayas in Hawaii. Perhaps a similar solution could be found for coffee rust? We will never know if we cannot try this option in the real world. Dr. Ronald spoke of her own work with rice: how a rice gene could possibly be used to battle the pathogen which threatens  bananas with extinction.

One possible application of genetic modification could be in building climate resilience in crops.Dr. Ronald shared her work on building flood tolerance in rice. In many parts of the world rice is grown in flood prone areas and with increased flooding possible from climate change; the development of a strain of rice which can stand water logging for up to 17 days as compared to the current maximum of 3 days is great news. But all these wonderful possibilities would take years to negotiate the stringent regulatory process and even then be opposed due to fear mongering. In that context, I was hoping to ask Dr. Ronald for her views on labeling of GMO products. But , sadly, there was not enough time; most of the discussion was taken up by two journalists from Germany, which, given that country’s staunch opposition to GMOs was interesting….

The main point to learn from this lecture was that the seed (around which so much of the storm is swirling) is but a small part in the whole process of growing food and we need to incorporate all options, technology and good agro-ecological practices to achieve sustainable development.

While I was learning all this; with ease, I would like to add, as Dr. Ronald is great at making all this scientific information accessible to those not from a science background; I wished more people could hear her, instead of being bombarded by myths of “dangerous farming” and GMOs killing bees.

Water and Technology in Farming

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This post grew from a discussion on Twitter about the state of Indian agriculture. Why, it was asked , would young people, choose to work on farms when they could get less demanding and higher paying jobs in malls and call centers in the cities? Perhaps, technical innovations that would increase productivity and income might make farming a better career choice? Then it was noted that Indian agriculture continues to remain dependent on the monsoons for water and new technology might provide some solutions.   By a curious synchronicity I came across this article on Peruvian farmers using modern technology and older knowledge to deal with climate change that makes rainfall erratic.

The indigenous communities were struggling with new conditions which meant that rainfall came in short, intense bursts and the soil does not retain enough water for pastures or subsistence crops. The weather that they collaborated to collect with the aid of technology painted a bleak picture of an uncertain future for rural communities.The solution: to build water reservoirs similar to those used by the Incas.

What struck me most in this piece is the development and sharing of this knowledge by the community members themselves. Also, the recognition that this program is only a part of the solution. Climate change is going to require a huge and varied effort from all of us, from the farmer in rural Peru to those who are reading and sharing these stories in urban settings. There is no magic wand, no perfect solution, we must try all that we know (including genetic modification) without prejudice.

As I was writing this, I remembered reading about an app that alerts the farmer to when and how much water is needed. I had forgotten to bookmark the source so I decided to search for it and here is the first page of search results!  I had no idea that there was such an array of options available at the swipe of a screen! How accessible and relevant are these for the farmers in Peru or India? That will be explored in another post: do share your experiences and stories in the comments , it would be great to include those as well.

(Image Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

 

Are Nitrogen Fertilizers Used in Organic Farming?

 

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One of the benefits of organic farming is supposed to be the use of organic fertilizers, as opposed to the nitrogen based fertilizers used in conventional agriculture. This would imply that organic farming would not be contributing to the process of climate change. But this piece at Biofortified.org explains that the issue of how the manure (used as fertilizer in organic farming) was actually produced. If it came from conventionally raised animals then it is part of the same process as the nitrogen fertilizer used on conventional farms and very much a part of the climate change process. As always, these issues are not either/or ones and the need for nuance in discussions is essential. The whole issue is very well explained here.

How “Real” is the Hunger Games

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The second movie in the Hunger Games series is out in theaters and is , as expected, doing extremely good business. The plot line of the series is fairly bleak but is it also a peek into a future that could happen to us. The story unfolds in a world ravaged by climate change and the conflicts that followed as people tried to grasp whatever resources they could. The heightened tension over sharing water, land grabs in countries far from home, the people killed or displaced by unstable weather that fill the headlines; all this is mere degrees away from the description of life in the Hunger Games books.

What is also striking is the contrast in living conditions in District 12 and the Capitol. It immediately calls to mind the classic descriptions of the colonial system taught in basic economics: resources extracted (often by coercion) from areas of the “periphery” to serve the needs of the rich and powerful “center”.  A more detailed analysis is here.

So ,while we eat more popcorn than is good for us and watch Katniss blaze on the big screen, it is a good time to reflect on the economic and historical paths we have walked and where we want to go in the future.