Thinking local isn’t enough when it comes to food and climate change

Bill Pritchard and John Duncan on some of the challenges facing the food system in India, and why India is the canary in the coal mine for climate change and food.

Image by Ben Bryant

Less than a year ago, the IPCC released its 5th Assessment Report. This report sought to address, head-on, the interactions between a changing climate and the world’s food systems. Meanwhile, the concept of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) has emerged as the major strategy for assisting farmers to mitigate their emissions and adapt to a changing climate. However, recent evidence on the potential implications of the climate-food nexus suggests that local action via CSA will be insufficient. More ambitious strategies designed at national and international scales are needed.

Climate-smart agriculture refers to integrated innovations that increase the sustainability of growing food in the face of a changing climate, enhance the resilience of rural communities to cope with climate shocks, and mitigate the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of agricultural practices. An essential characteristic of CSA is that the conditions for its implementation vary from place to place, because of local differences in climate sensitivity, agricultural practices, and the ways that farming is connected to broader rural society (for example, questions about who owns land). Consequently, CSA has been advanced through a plethora of local studies that have the effect of informing farmers, government agencies and other stakeholders what they need to do in the face of a changing climate.

This is well and good, but runs the risk of being myopic to larger-scale dynamics. Framing the problem as a mitigation and adaption responsibility for local communities places a burden upon them which they may be ill-equipped to address. Rural communities in developing countries have minimal historical responsibility for GHG emissions but bear a disproportionate risk of climate impacts. What happens at the local scale may be steamrollered by institutional arrangements or processes working at regional or national scales, which may be outside the gaze of researchers with an eye to ‘local action and local solutions’.

India is the canary in the coal mine on these issues, having the largest number of under-nourished people in the world, being one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, and having a food system which produces not inconsequential GHG emissions. In India, there is a plenitude of studies into the food-climate interface at local levels, but glaring gaps remain in understanding these dynamics at a national scale.

The Indian food system operates on the basis of massive grain surpluses produced in the northwest states of Punjab and Haryana that are dispersed across the country, in large part through the institutional architecture of India’s Public Distribution System (PDS), the world’s largest food subsidy scheme.

Recent research has demonstrated the highly vulnerable status of crop production in Punjab and Haryana due to climate change. Analysis of satellite imagery has quantified the negative impact of warming on wheat crop production across these states. The results showed that warming temperatures and a greater frequency of extreme heat days (greater than 35C) had a negative impact on wheat crop yield during the last decade. Crop yields were still reduced by warming temperatures even when crops were sown earlier to avoid periods of highest temperatures. This suggests simple adaptations such as shifting cropping calendars will not fully mitigate the impact of warming.

This is bad not only for farmers in this region, but for India’s future food security as a whole. Reductions to grain production in these states will seriously undermine the Government of India’s current strategies to feed its population. In 2013 the Indian Parliament passed the National Food Security Act, which enshrined access to food grains as a constitutional right and set forth an expansive procurement plan to buy rice and wheat from farmers in northwest India.

Not only is agriculture in northwest India vulnerable to climate change impacts, it is also a significant emitter and driver of climate variability. Burning of crop residues after harvest releases atmospheric particulates weakening the heating gradients which drive monsoon circulation; this has implications for the dominant rainfed croplands which support many impoverished farmers across south Asia. The intensive cropping in northwest India has a large fossil fuel footprint due to widespread mechanization (electric and diesel irrigation pumps and use of on-farm machinery) and fertilizer applications; furthermore, rice cropping is a major emitter of methane.

Clearly therefore, contradictions exist between the aspirations of legislators in Delhi, and what scientists are telling us about the future of the grains sector in India’s most important production region. Current wording of the National Food Security Act does not acknowledge climate risks. The closest reference is in section 31 which refers to a list of potential measures for Central and State Governments to employ in improving the agrarian situation, including improved irrigation, without any firm mandates or targets. The National Food Security Act does not consider mitigation activities. This is worrying from a sustainability perspective; not only will emissions from northwest India harm India’s agriculture and efforts towards ensuring food security but they will increase climate change impacts on croplands and climate vulnerable sectors globally.

These issues are highly germane to key international negotiations that will take place this year. In Paris in December, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP21, will seek to establish a legally binding agreement on GHG emission targets. As food systems are substantial emitters, they must be included when finalizing emission targets. Also within the next twelve months, the United Nations is expected to ratify a set of Sustainable Development Goals as successors to the Millennium Development Goals, which expire at the end of 2015. Goals aimed at reducing hunger will be prominent; for this goal to be a realistic target food systems need to be resilient to climatic impacts. Thus, these two pivotal international negotiations at the present time illuminate how food and climate systems are joined at the hip.

Appropriately, the intersections between food and climate will feature prominently within both these negotiations. In side-meetings of both processes, CSA will be advocated as offering locally-grounded solutions to the dilemmas of how to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint, and make it more resilient to a changing climate. These approaches have merit, but are not enough. There is potential for national and international disruptions to food system transitions towards delivering climate-smart outcomes, as demonstrated by the Indian example. This demands strategies with a broader remit and the research, policy and activist communities must respond with multi-scalar visions when thinking climate-smart. To address the potential problems of climate change and food security, we need to think and act locally, and think and act globally.

John Duncan is a post doctoral researcher from the University of Southampton. His research has included exploring the interaction between water-energy-food security and livelihoods in the Asia-Pacific and vulnerability to climate change in the rice-wheat systems of north-west India.

Bill Pritchard is convener of the Food node at the Sydney Environment Institute and Associate Professor in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney.