Tag Archives: climate change

Preparing the Food System for Climate Change

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Sometimes just looking at my Twitter feed can be overwhelming: people calling attention to melting glaciers, deforestation, endangered animals, submerging islands, and then some  people saying this is untrue; and then even more squabbles on what to do about it all. But take a step back and block out the noise and you might find that there is something that can be done, by all of us. That is the key actually. Each of us needs to take action. Governments have their responsibility but are often slow to move and cannot carry this through alone. There is much for us to do at our level.  I liked this article because it sets out concrete action options for agriculture.

First, we should not sit back and  “accept” climate change”. Taking steps to reduce emissions in agriculture, switching to climate resistant crops are among the possible solutions for growers to implement. However, there is a huge shortfall in the investment needed for research to come up with such solutions, that could be an area for governments as well as private individuals and corporations to make an impact. For consumers, we need to reduce food waste: buy according to a plan so nothing is thrown away unused, put smaller portions on the plate, work with restaurants to channel extra food to shelters or food banks. A big help would be to reduce meat consumption as well.

Even before we take these steps, a basic truth must be acknowledged: people, animals, crops and the environment they exist in succeed or fail in dealing with climate change as a unit. Conservation and  preservation activities have to be in tandem with ensuring that people are able to maintain a decent existence. Where the goals are unclear or weighed excessively in one direction, conflicts will inevitably erupt. So instead of bringing all our resources to bear on meeting the challenge of climate change, we might be stuck in the trap of dealing with escalating social unrest as the struggle to control and access  scarce resources becomes sharper and are thus, left vulnerable to climate shocks.

Ideological positions will have to be tempered with pragmatic solutions. All those wars on social media, passing judgement on the best/only way to grow/consume food, demonizing the other side, trying to score points, that is such an absurd waste of time and energy. It will take all options to walk through this storm; so technology and better farm practices, urban farming and ranches all will be part of the solution and throwing one or the other out is the equivalent of scoring an own goal.

The time to act is now, find a way to help and  try to make it happen. And yes, this means going out and actually putting an effort into a program or an initiative; putting up a cute profile picture or retweeting to make a hashtag trend is not enough. We know what we must do and there are no excuses for not doing it.

 

 

A Third Way To Describe How Food Is Grown?

 

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When I first started reading about the food system and following discussions on social media, it took no time at all to realize that there was a sharp divide in this world: “organic” to this side, “conventional” to the other and judging by the shrillness of the debate, never the twain would meet. But I am now learning that each of these worlds has their own variations, differences of opinion and intense debate. In the organic community there is a debate over the use of  natural substances as opposed to synthetic ones. While some organic farmers see the utility of substances which may not have been used historically but are useful today, others remain firm on excluding synthetic substances.

There are no magical powers attached to one or the other set of substances: an organic pesticide like rotenone can be more hazardous that synthetic pesticides and arsenic or mercury which are poisonous occur in nature.  Part of this attachment to “natural” is fueled, I suspect by all those memes of scary syringes stuck in produce by people in lab coats.  While the Internet may helpfully suggest a mix of salt, vinegar and dish soap as gentler, more natural alternative to other synthetic weed killers, this study showed that both are as gentle and as effective, it all depends on how they are used.

A lot of misinformation floats around about both types of farming: while there have vocal demands for labeling foods containing GMOs , not many consumers realize that organic producers  are not overseen by the USDA and in fact, the organic certification comes from the National Organic Standards Board (how many of us had heard of this?). This Board is now protesting any involvement by the USDA.

And while we are all getting worked up about which system is better or “purer”, climate change is casting its shadow over our crops, even grape juice , it turns out, will not go untouched! Let us focus on the main thing here: the planet is at a point of crisis. It is time to focus on adopting all those tools and practices that can help us ensure that the growing population can be fed in a way that exerts the minimum pressure on the environment. Can we agree to stop arguing about just two systems and widen our approach to adopt practices that would keep production growing with demand in a way that is compatible with the new climate reality we are living?

 

Farewell To Our Favorite Fish?

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For a Bengali, fish is not just food, it is connected to everything in life. We celebrate our cricket and soccer team wins with fresh fish curry; and send out gorgeously decorated fish to the bride’s house as part of our wedding rituals. Our culture grew in the low islands and mangroves of the Bay of Bengal, awash in tales of the delta and the fearsome legends of the Bengal tiger. With climate change, some of these strands of our heritage will disappear forever. The tiger is in danger of extinction, the mangroves are shrinking and the lowest islands of Bangladesh are being reclaimed by the rising waters.

Still, we thought, we had our favorite fish, “ilish”( Tenualosa Ilisha). It was a momentous treat when I was a child: the first elish of the season which would be prepared in a golden mustard gravy with a bright green chilli pepper, served up with steaming rice. It was an expensive fish, not to be eaten everyday and certainly not during the breeding season. But somewhere along the way, all this changed. With prosperity came an insatiable demand, ilish was being eaten around the year and exported all over the world. Now, we may have to live in a world with only our memories of the delight it brought to our lives.

Efforts are on to conserve ilish by several organisations and the Bangladesh government.  Bengalis all over the world are praying this will work (watching our own ilish consumption would also help!). Perhaps we can look to a conservation success like the blue crabs  in the Chesapeake Bay or the mix of restrictions and incentives that Brazil has used to successfully reduce degradation in the Amazon rainforest to ensure that the ilish continue to thrive.

For a look at the life of people living in the ecosystem of the Bay of Bengal,   “The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh is an absorbing read.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Climate Change and Food Security for All: Is it Possible?

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This week most of us felt hopeful as we heard President Obama announce new measures to respond to climate disruption. Although we have been hearing the discussion on climate change for a while, most people think of it as something that might unfold in the future. The fact is that climate change is here and is already altering the world as we know it.

Consider the case of the puffin: parents of baby puffins are bringing in food for them that they are not physically capable of ingesting. Why? Because the fish they usually feed on, hake and herring, are no longer found in the waters around them: the water is simply too warm for the fish to survive. So fewer baby puffins are surviving into adulthood. Their life patterns are also changing and the are coming in late this year to their summer habitats.

Meanwhile, humans too are faced with the challenge of feeding 9 billion people in a time of uncertain climatic conditions. The melting ice in the Antarctic could raise sea levels to an extent where China, India,Bangladesh, and Vietnam would lose millions of hectares of arable land and food production would fall. At the other extreme, higher temperatures threaten crop yield in the USA. A warmer climate also means an increase in disease and pests. The cloud of grasshoppers gathering in New Mexico is not from some movie set in the future, but happening right now.

The challenge is not just to create a more productive, climate resilient agriculture sector but also to ensure that all of our food is produced in a way that reduces pressure on a planet where everything is interlinked. If we look at discrete solutions we risk generating more problems: the effort to limit over fishing in the ocean by raising fish in farms, for example, has resulted in the destruction of mangroves and zones algae blooms that suck up oxygen and kill the fish.

The need is to consider the whole problem: whether we live in the Maldives or Mexico, on a farm or in the city, our lives are about to go in a direction different from what we known for centuries and the solutions we devise must take into account the needs of all the whole planet; humans, puffins and all.

And all this, without some coffee to help us along, because that too is likely to disappear as the climate changes.

(Image Courtest: Freedigitalphotos.net)

Revisiting the “eat local” Idea

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I just came across this review of a book called “The Locavore’s Delusion”, and yes, it is a nod to that other book, in case you were wondering! The authors of the book tried to answer the question: why did we start eating a more global diet anyway? The article gives a summary of reasons that most people offer for opting to eat local: more tasty, nutritious, helps local economy etc , and the most often cited reason: it is good for the environment. This has been the subject of much discussion (some of which I wrote about here) and the point at issue is that the contribution to greenhouse gases comes more from the actual cultivation of crops rather than their transportation.

The answer the authors provide to the query, why did global food trade develop, is that it provides increased variety of foods, reduced prices and stability of supply. They also argue that efforts to counter this are really an effort to turn back the clock with negative consequences. If a region was hit by unexpected weather events or pest infestations and the crops failed, there would be no relief available if we functioned as closed off food islands. Indeed, they see the problem as being one of inadequate globalization where subsidies, trade barriers and other distortions are hindering an optimum situation of low prices and assured availability of food.

Some of the discussion here has been heard before but I liked the way the question was posed: why did we start expanding out of the local market? Perhaps we could ask the same question for the GMO question: why did we start developing them in the first place? Was it because some evil people were working up weird stuff in their labs and injecting it into food to try and rule the world like in some bad movie? No, it was because we need to tackle pests to stop crop loss. We will need it in the future to combat climate change. Imagine a flood event that submerges crops. Since genetically modified crops that could withstand the submersion were not planted, there is no food. But there is also no way to acquire it from anywhere else because food trade has given way to purely local markets. It could happen….

 

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

The Episode of the Disappearing Oysters

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Thanks to a free weekend from Showtime, I was able to catch up on another episode of their show on climate change, “Years of Living Dangerously”. (I reviewed the first episode here).This episode had two story lines: one, in which Ms. Lesley Stahl travels to Greenland to explore the melting glaciers; and the second, where Mr. Ian Somerhalder brings us the climate debate going on in the evangelical community in the USA, a debate that has a significant impact on actual policy making.

We were treated to stunning views of glaciers which drove home the point of how beautiful our planet is and how callous we are in our stewardship of all that it offers. The rumble of the glaciers cracking served as reminders of how quickly all this could vanish. In fact, the melting of glaciers is also opening up possibilities for oil exploration and there is more investment going on in this right now than the GDP of Greenland! This provides income boosting opportunities for the inhabitants of Greenland and here we come up against the reality of climate change: when the environment changes and people’s livelihoods are threatened, policy making and taking action becomes more fraught.

The other narrative thread revisits some territory from the first episode: the attempt to establish that climate change is real and happening now to those whose belief in their faith casts doubt over this. The starting point is the campaign to shut down coal plants in North Carolina and elsewhere in the country. Mr. Somerhalder’s foundation has been committed to calling attention to the issue of  the impact of coal in an effective campaign on social media. But, initiatives like this are being met with resistance by certain faith based groups. We meet pastor Rick Joyner who remains unconvinced about the evidence on climate change despite his daughter’s efforts. She is joined in her effort by Dr. Katherine Hayhoe  who also featured in the first episode; and is a skilled and dedicated communicator on climate change issues.

To illustrate the impact of climate change, we are introduced to the oyster fishermen of Apalachicola Bay which was once full of oysters but is almost empty today. Increased use of water upstream due to drought, and a rise in the sea level, has changed the salinity level of the bay waters making it unsuitable for oysters. A source of income and food has disappeared and, as we know, this story with different players is being repeated all over the world.

The show does not present easy answers: we hear the dilemma of the leadership of Greenland, “our country is not a museum”, people have to survive and they want to give their families a good life; we watch as a tentative coexistence between faith and science develops,  but finally it is up to each of us to find our position and act on it. What is worrisome is that time is not on our side and we need to make changes soon.

I wish that the potential impact of climate change on our food system was highlighted in Years of Living Dangerously. Perhaps that will come in other episodes, there is certainly enough material on it for a whole show to itself!

 

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

Will There Be A Second Green Revolution?

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Last week, The Economist published a piece on the possibility of a second Green Revolution on rice fields in Asia and Africa. The possibilities outlined in it make one hopeful for the future, at a time when stasis on climate change and polarization among the players in the food system usually make for a grim outlook.

The second revolution, if it comes, will be crucial in feeding the growing population as current yields are dropping off from previous levels. And what is remarkable is that the increase in yield required to meet demand can be obtained almost entirely from areas missed by the first Green Revolution. This is because, the green revolution took off in irrigated areas while passing by the rain dependent regions. These areas fall in the marginal category where harvests are often disrupted by drought or floods. Now, the International Rice Research Institute is  offering farmers a rice variety that stays dormant during long periods of flooding and then resumes growth. This would be an invaluable trait for dealing with the possibility of increased rainfall and  flooding due to climate disruption. And, because this offers the possibility of increased production on marginal lands, the impact in terms of greater income would go to the most vulnerable sections of the rural poor whose impoverishment is a result of their dependence on unproductive land.

But how was this new strain of rice developed? The scientists at IRRI had identified a rice strain from Odisha, in eastern India, as having a high flood tolerance. This was then crossed with other rice varieties but the experiments were not successful. Finally, the scientists identified the gene that enabled flood tolerance, and spliced into other rice varieties, to achieve more than a dozen varieties of rice , all flood tolerant and collectively known as “Sub 1″.This is what was so striking for me: decades of traditional breeding saw no success, yet once the genetic sequence of the rice from Odisha was marked, it took only four years for flood tolerant seeds to be produced!

This presents a promising option for making agriculture resilient to future climatic uncertainties in a short period of time, in addition to increasing production on marginal lands and providing income opportunities for the rural poor. This would be a revolution indeed! The article is here and an interesting account of the farmers growing Sub 1 rice in Odisha is here.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

Farmers Respond to Climate Change

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As the last post mentioned,  the US government’s latest report on climate change takes note of the challenges that await farmers in the coming years. But, as we know, farmers are dealing with variable and unpredictable weather right now, so that the crops they grew and the way they grow them is also changing.How are they doing so, what are they changing?

One interesting aspect of the response to changes in climate has been the rediscovery and resurgence of neglected/marginal crops. Often, these would be crops indigenous to a certain area which required little tending and were, sort of, taken for granted. Now, their ability to grow in marginal areas has become an advantage. An example here would be the case of the lima bean in Kenya. This bean remains dormant in the soil, waiting for the rain and so can survive dry spells,so it has moved from being a marginal crop to the center stage of  cultivation.

“Climate Smart Agriculture”  which consists of ensuring food security, adaptation and mitigation (as defined by the FAO) is redefining farming in different countries. The success stories range from harvesting water to grow millet in the Sahel to adoption of rice production techniques to use less water by smallholder farmers in Vietnam; from carbon farming initiatives in Australia to reduction in the  contribution of Danish agriculture to emissions by better use of manure and lower use of inorganic fertilizers.

And what about American farmers? Some of them, it seems, see the disruption in climate as simply another weather pattern, but they are also aware of the  need to follow good practices on the farm to be able to deal with the weather patterns. This means that they are quick to adopt the climate efficient techniques suggested by the USDA: practicing no-till farming, planting cover crops etc.

Whether changes come by way of policy decisions , as responses to the threat to a way of life or as pragmatic reactions to constraints, all these changes  will add up to a better food system. But will they be enough to get us through the crisis ahead?

(Image Courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)

 

#Farming Friday 12: “Farmers Helping Fish”

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The current drought in  California poses a problem for salmon in their breeding season. Here is a wonderful story of how farmers helped the fish in need!

The Conservation Question

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Going through all the postings/ articles shared on the occasion of Earth Day, it is encouraging to note the concern for preserving the environment. But, along with  that, comes the realization that preservation/conservation really means different things to different people. As one writer notes, the idea of pristine nature, left to itself; without humans going in and wrecking it is somewhat of an artificial construct.  Delinking people and their surroundings is a distortion. Over centuries, people have lived in harmony with their surroundings but this relationship has become fractured in recent times. The need is to restore it, rather than banish people from these spaces.

In rural areas, the poorest sections of the population often depend on their surrounding environment for food, fuel, fodder,even medicine and shutting them out to “preserve” nature makes the rural poor more vulnerable to economic hardship. Even the practice of eco-tourism as a means of balancing conservation and economic priorities can actually have a negative impact on those who depend on the land for survival.This would become worse as climate change poses a challenge to the food system and way of life of many communities causing them to become food insecure and  displaced from their homelands.

There is a need to emphasize that tackling climate change is not solely a matter of desertification, rising oceans or vanishing habitats for plants and animals. Climate change is impacting the livelihoods of people, specially the rural poor. So any plan of action should, ideally, take the whole picture into account: how can people and the environment coexist in a time of climate change? The answer  can be found partly in the technology that is available to us today and also in the knowledge that indigenous communities possess that enabled them to prosper in their environment in the past.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)