Editorial: Climate change and agriculture

Published in The Hindu on June 30, 2009

The rise in global temperature owing to climate change will affect agriculture in strikingly different ways in the lower and higher latitudes. While in temperate latitudes a rise in temperature will help developed countries increase food productivity, it will have adverse effects in India and other countries in the tropics. The summer monsoon, which accounts for nearly 75 per cent of India’s rainfall, is critical for agriculture. Climate change is likely to intensify the variability of summer monsoon dynamics, leading to a rise in extreme events such as increased precipitation and heightened flood risks in some parts of the country and reduced rainfall and prolonged drought in other areas. A World Bank report on climate change impact based on case studies in India has focussed on drought-prone regions of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, and flood-prone districts in Orissa on the edge of climate tolerance limits. It highlights the possibility of the yields of major dry land crops declining in Andhra Pradesh. Sugarcane farmers of Maharashtra may see yields go down by as much as 30 per cent. Rice production in Orissa will face a similar fate with yields in the flood-prone coastal regions dropping by12 per cent.

Poor and marginal farmers who own less than one acre of land mostly populate these regions. There is an urgent need to evolve comprehensive climate resilience strategies that must factor in risk assessment, better water management, developing varieties that can do well in stressful conditions, and bringing about certain changes in agricultural practices. Many organisations are already working to develop drought-resistant and saline-resistant crop varieties for the arid regions, and rainfall-tolerant and short-duration varieties for flood-prone regions. But greater and sustained government support for agricultural research will be vital. At the same time, the government must persuade farmers to take better advantage of the dry rabi season in the flood-prone regions, and also help them supplement their income through non-farm activities such as aquaculture. It may take many years for the devastating effects of climate change on agriculture to be felt fully but the time for bold government and public action is now.