Forget GM Seeds, Go Organic, And India Will Have A Better Chance At Weathering Climate Change
02 Dec 2015
Last month, while the Indian social media was going berserk over the many Khans of Bollywood, a World Bank report about climate change and poverty was published. It contained warnings about a horrible future that is right around the corner, but few paid attention to the concerns outlined in Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty.
According to Shock Waves, by 2030, over 100 million people would have been forced into extreme poverty because of climate change. That’s just 15 years away.
The year 2030 is a deadline date. India has pledged to reduce emissions intensity by 33 per cent of the 2005 levels by 2030. We’ve also committed to generating 40 per cent power from non-fossil fuel sources. As goals go, it’s a good one. Like many life goals, however, attaining this one seems unlikely without some serious policy changes.
At the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP 21) talks this year, India has just announced the global solar alliance between countries and big industries. It aims to get affordable power to off-the-grid, remote and rural areas. That ambitious plan will be critically important, given that the International Energy Agency’s World Economic Outlook 2015 estimates that by 2040, India’s coal consumption will be second only to China. Our demand for oil is also set to rise.
Shock Waves’s insistence upon good, climate-informed development is particularly timely under the circumstances. This week, world leaders are meeting for COP 21, to try and negotiate an agreement to limit global temperature rise. The threat that rising temperatures poses are undeniable today, particularly in the way it affects food security in poorer regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, adding stress to an already fragile ecosystem.
Unpredictable weather and agriculture in India
Fifty six per cent of India’s agriculture is rain-fed. This year has been seared with news of extreme weather conditions and an erratic monsoon that wreaked havoc on crops across the country. In Punjab’s Malwa region, whiteflies destroyed 60 per cent of the Bt cotton crop, causing a loss of approximately Rs. 4,200 crore. Delayed monsoon and prolonged hot summers have already impacted cotton and food crops across the country. In November, a survey conducted by farmer activist group Swaraj Abhiyan showed the severity of drought and famine in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh.
Over the last 17 years, three lakh farmers have committed suicide in India. This is a statistic that should punch each one of us in the gut. Their deaths are not just testaments to the severity that farmers encounter today, but also an ominous portent of times to come. In simple terms, poor yields, escalating input costs and fluctuating market prices push farmers into an endless cycle of debt. Some are pushed to commit suicide, and some leave agriculture to become labourers.
In developing countries, the poorest households already spend 40 to 60 per cent of their income on food and beverages. Organisations such as the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala are encouraging farmers to follow mixed agriculture practice, which acts as a safety net – if cash crops fail due to an erratic monsoon, farmers are at least food secure in these climate-challenged times.
“Each farming family that has for decades now been growing cash crops for the distant markets is committed to being net staple food suppliers,” said Tomy Mathew, the co-founder of the FTAK, a democratically-governed small-holder farmer organisation. “In terms of calorie value, the food that they produce will be more than the requirements of the family,” he added. The FTAK focus is on climate mitigation through fair terms of trade, biodiversity, food security, and gender justice.
These principals will be the foundation for climate justice for the poor, who are not the biggest contributors to climate change but are the ones who bear its brunt.
Shock Waves: Focus on India
In the section, “Bad Seed: Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security”, the authors of Shock Waves points out that by 2080, “the average yield declines estimated from all climate models could be as severe as 23 percent for South Asia”. This means there is no time to waste. It’s essential we develop climate-smart, smallholder farmer communities that will enable farmers to survive the new challenges and keep all of us food secure.
For instance, Shock Waves highlights the need to “develop higher yielding and more climate-resistant crop varieties and livestock breeds, adapted to developing country contexts and climate conditions”. It cites the example of Scuba or Swarna-Sub1, a “climate-ready rice” which is being field-tested in Odisha. Reports claim that the flood-resistant rice is not genetically-modified, but is a hybrid of two rice varieties.
One of the ways that some hope to tackle the problems of yield and climate change are GM seeds. In India, we’re seeing the debate heat up over genetically modified cotton, mustard and even mosquitos. The social and ecological impacts of these seeds will require a closer and objective look. What needs to be kept in mind is the larger picture. There may be immediate gains to GM seeds. For instance, over 90 per cent of cotton in India is genetically modified Bt Cotton, which is resistant to certain pests and has an initial high-yield. However, it has a high input cost. The seeds are expensive (approximately three to eight times the price of conventional seeds) and require specific pesticides that over time strip the soil of its richness. Once harvested, hybrid cotton seeds cannot be replanted. In the long run, this is more damaging than helpful.
Farmers need to be put in control of their seeds, rather than corporate entities. Take for example Chetna Organic, a group in Odisha that is working to enhance sustainable livelihood options for small-holder farmer families. It empowers women to manage and control local seed enterprises. The programme is in its third year, but already women farmers are conserving local and indigenous food and fibre seeds that are also high yielding.
According to the United Nations, India is home to one third of the world’s extreme poor population. It’s a figure that’s set to rise, until we and our government make a conscious choice towards equitable development that is climate-informed and inclusive. It’s good that there are speeches and conversations at the Paris Climate Conference, but Shock Waves is a reminder that development that is rapid, inclusive and climate-informed is the need of the hour.