Climate change: Why it’s Time for a Complete Re-think on Agriculture

It’s official now. Private weather forecaster Skymet has revised its monsoon rain forecast from normal to below normal. While the monsoon deficiency of states (between June and August) such as Bihar, four North-Eastern states (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram) and the Lakshadweep Islands vary from a high of 64% to a low of 24%.   For many other states, including J&K, Chhattisgarh, UP, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Telengana, Karnataka, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Goa, the deficiency varies between as little as 1% to a high of 12%. And if this isn’t bad enough, Skymet has also indicated that India was up against a 25% chance of drought. Despite a seemingly ‘normal’ monsoon this year, a few states have braved floods, whereas others are bracing themselves for a drought. This is not good news, especially when the forecast in April pointed to a normal monsoon.

It’s no secret that the unpredictable nature of the monsoon puts agriculture at risk, especially given that this is the time when most farmers sow the kharif crop. Deficient rain in India, the world’s second-biggest producer of rice, wheat and sugar and top grower of cotton, can lead to lower crop output and spur imports of commodities like edible oils, pulses and sugar.

The unpredictability of the monsoons is also nothing new; neither is it limited to the Indian subcontinent. This is an outcome of global shifting of weather patterns affecting local climate across the world. The worst hit victim of climate change has always been and continues to be the humble farmer. The farmer is affected in multiple ways – unpredictable weather increases his risks of farming which in turn affects his output. It’s not just droughts or floods that affect a farmer’s output – they also affect the quality of soil (soil erosion is a fallout). Higher global temperatures also lead to a higher incidence of pest attacks and plant disease. The poor farmer therefore has a multi-pronged battle on his hands – water stress, excessive heat or cold, decreasing soil quality and increased pest attacks. This impacts farm growth and his profits – both of which are borne out by hard data. Indian agriculture grew just 5.2%, over the five-year period between 2011-2012 and 2016-2017. In comparison, during the same period, the non-agriculture sector, forestry, livestock and fishing grew by an incredible 54.5%.

Is there a way out? Remember, most of Indian farmers are poor or marginalized, typically with small land-holdings growing 1 to 2 crops a year. The solution therefore clearly does not lie in spending more on pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and anti-microbials) or farm fertilizers (organic or non-organic). Neither does the solution lie in simply adopting new cropping techniques (good to do but does not address pest-attacks or global warming). The solution lies in embracing agri-technology that includes using seeds that are resistant to climate change and/or pest attacks. Agribiotechnology that includes what is commonly referred to as GM crops is only one of many such emerging or existing technologies with the potential to revolutionize or revitalize Indian agriculture. GM crops are perhaps the best-known example of agri-biotechnology that has made sweeping changes with regards to improving farm output and enhancing farm incomes globally and in India too. India embraced GM technology around two decades back when it introduced Bt Cotton (genetically engineered to kill the bollworm, a dreaded cotton-pest that can decimate the cotton crop) to farmers. Bt Cotton helped India revolutionize cotton farming and resulted in India becoming a net-exporter of cotton from being a net-importer. Over 90% of cotton farmers cultivate Bt Cotton today. Despite this startling and sustained success, Indian policymakers shied away from embracing Bt Brinjal, another GM crop developed for India. Bangladesh however did not shy from this technology and the results speak for themselves. Bangladesh farmers who grew Bt Brinjal netted US$ 2151 per hectare compared to US$ 357 per hectare by those who grew the non-Bt version (a six-fold difference). The former (GMO farmers) saved 61% of pesticide costs and experienced no loss due to pests.

But new gene modification (or transgenic) technologies and plant breeding techniques are being introduced that herald the promise of revolutionizing Indian agriculture. Recently the Shiv Nadar University, one of India’s leading private universities in collaboration with the University of Oxford and another UK based institution developed a strain of wheat that promises up to 50% improved output and has improved resilience to climate change – not just heat / drought but also cold and water. Interestingly the new process can be replicated across other crops including rice, potato and others and offers the potential to improve India’s farm economy & enable food security. This transgenic method tinkers with the plants own genes instead of introducing a foreign gene (as is done in conventional GM plants) and is formally referred to as ‘SMIGP (Small Molecules Intervention in Signaling Process) and is a variant of what is more commonly known as CRISPR gene editing process that is making news these days. This new process can be replicated across other crops including rice, potato and others and offers the potential to improve India’s farm economy & enable food security going forward. Similarly, a team of researchers at Junagadh Agriculture University (JAU) is developing a strain of cholesterol free groundnut oil. JAU is the only third university in India after Mohali Agriculture University and Jawaharlal Nehru University to start using CRISPR the gene-editing technique by which parts of DNA are either removed or replaced with accuracy. Similarly, CAS9 is a variant of CRISPR technology and is being used globally by agri-scientists to engineer new strains of crops with enhanced strains that fight climate change and resist pests. Equally importantly these gene editing technologies are also being used to create a whole new strain of crops and fruits more quickly and effectively than was done in the past using traditional breeding techniques. One such initiative used CRISPR to make mushrooms that don’t brown, while a team in Spain has been using the approach to try to produce wheat that can be eaten by people with coeliac disease. Another new gene-editing company called Pairwise is reportedly developing sweeter-tasting strawberries, while scientists in Japan have used the technique to produce seedless tomatoes.

These technologies are all an example of what may be called, what a scientist once referred to as ‘responsive science.’  They are new technologies that can herald a new dawn for Indian farmers provided of course, policymakers and other stakeholders align with the larger goal of Indian agriculture – that of improving output and enhancing rural incomes. Needless to add, the benefits and risks (if any) of such technologies also need to also be transparently shared and discussed with farmers and scientists alike. But growth and the advance of science cannot be derailed at the door of presumptions and alarmism over transgenic crops. This is both unscientific and unwise. And at the end, anti-farmer and anti-growth.

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