A recent international conference on climate change and sustainable agriculture in New Delhi brought forth the shocking realisation that there are no conclusive studies in India on the prospective impact of climate change on the agriculture sector including livestock and fisheries.
Much of the country's understanding comes from global data provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Meteorological Organisation and other world bodies.
The conference theme paper contained the following admission: “The climate system is extremely complex and poorly understood in terms of extent, timing and impact. Thus, the knowledge and understanding of implications of climate change at the national level is inadequate and fragmentary.”
The statement is telling, coming as it does from the organisers — the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) and non-government institute, National Council for Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Public Leadership; the government has entrusted the ICAR with the task of coming up with “mitigation” and “adaptation” technologies.
So it is fair to ask how in the absence of comprehensive “knowledge and understanding about the implications of climate change” as the ICAR put it, the government is moving towards the 12th Plan with a strategy that has potential to affect the country's food security and make it dependent on imports in the long term.
In what it describes as an effort to mitigate the impact of climate change on agriculture — which by the admission of its own research arm it has not understood yet — the government appears to be tailoring its policies to encourage a gradual shift from traditional agriculture to bio-fuels, afforestation, genetically modified organisms, hybrid seeds and cross-breeds.
The Finance Minister is losing sleep over subsidies he has to provide for the food and fertiliser sector, but farmers are sleepless over the disappearance of friendly pests and honey bees from their fields.
They rue the decline in production of nutritious millets, pulses, oilseeds and fail to understand the government's comfort level with importing these commodities years on.
Aware of the move to cut power and water subsidies for irrigation, the 60 per cent farmers dependant on rain-fed agriculture question the government's generosity in providing incentives/subsidies/tax holidays to the food processing industry, floriculture, and horticulture sectors to attract foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail.
For decades, Indian farmers, with their deep traditional knowledge that respects the ecosystem, have practiced “climate-smart and climate-resilient” agriculture catapulting cereal production from 50 million tonnes in the 50's to an all-time high of 250 million tonnes this year with a record output in wheat and rice.
For years, the 80 per cent small and marginal farmers with a landholding of less than an acre have delivered in the face of natural calamities and adapted to poor irrigation, unaffordable credit, lack of proper crop and self insurance and un-remunerative price for the crop.
They have responded to the shift from natural to chemical-based farming and lack of crucial extension services that lie in the hands of often exploitative artiyas, or intermediaries, who double up as moneylenders, and seed and pesticide suppliers.
Indeed, it is on the strength of the inherent resilience of Indian farmers that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is bringing forth a food security legislation to provide wheat and rice to 46 per cent of the rural poor and 28 per cent urban poor.
Despite the pressure this places on the farmer to grow more cereals, there are clear indications of the policy shift to crop diversification, and towards irreversible changes in land-use patterns, agriculture to bio-fuels and agro-forestry.
With the push being given to transgenics and genetically modified seeds, ostensibly for raising productivity, there is a disconcerting move to open up the seed sector to multi-national company monopolies.
In addition, productive agriculture land has come under tremendous pressure recently from urban and industrial needs. Suggestions for use of huge tracts of wastelands for these purposes have not found favour with the government.
As for the changes in weather patterns due to climate change, in the Indian context the trends observed in the last 100 years show that there is no significant change in monsoon rainfall at the all-India level, although some regional variations have been noticed. For instance, the frequency of cyclones during post monsoon seasons will be higher in six decades from now.
Going by the “limited studies” put forward by the ICAR, the drought in 2002 affected food production by 10 per cent; the cold wave in January 2003 hit cultivation of mustard, mango, guava, papaya, brinjal, tomato and potato. High rainfall in 1998 and 2005 affected kharif and late kharif onion crop, resulting in price hike. But the issue is: can these single-year events be quoted as examples of long-term climate change?
In general terms, the ICAR says that continuous higher temperatures during critical growth stages of rabi crops reduces yields “considerably”. This is not borne by the increase in wheat production that has gone up — over a decade — from 69.68 million tonnes in 2000-2001 to a record 88.31 million tonnes in 2011-12.
The simple requirement of farmers on the ground in States like Punjab and Haryana is advanced and accurate information on weather. They want quick movement of kharif stock so that they can bring forward the sowing of rabi-wheat. But the government has done precious little towards this.
Coastal States situated along the 7,500-km coastline seek policies to sustain productive and protective habitats such as mangroves, coral reefs wetlands and fisheries. Hilly States want development of traditional forest land from which they draw green feeds and grasses to indigenously manage natural resources. High-altitude States, which face droughts, frosts, torrential rains and landslides, prefer integrated soil and watershed management in a farming system mode to sustain them through the year.
Clearly rather than the top-down policy shifts that could jeopardise food security, there is pressing need for honest location-specific research in partnership with small and marginal farmers to assess over a period of time the impact of climate change. Instead of being driven by international funding, such research should be driven by the needs of farmers.