Adapting Agriculture to Changing Climate in South Asia

The paper by Khatri-Chhetri and Aggrawal explores a range of approaches to cope with the problems of adaptation to climate change in S E Asia.

Many of the adaptation strategies have relevance to agriculture in other areas. Understanding them and the forces that determine their application may prove critical in the ability of agriculture to cope with the changes that lie ahead,

An issue that emerges is the importance of the structure of the food and agricultural sector in the application of new technology.

This is in part a result of the availability of specialist skills, an area that challenges us to make better use of IT; it also affects the capacity of agricultural businesses to cope with risk.

Khatri-Chhetri and Aggrawal indicate the difficulty poor farmers have in applying innovations that demand capital. The issue goes much further. Given the existing and projected levels of volatility in weather we are looking for an agriculture that can cope with crop failures.

There are many approaches to this but a critical element is the ability of a farmer to ride out the consequences and be in a position to resume production in succeeding years.

Very poor farmers, most of whom are small scale, are unable to do this- the pressures of poverty may lead to ‘eating the seed corn’, being unable to afford fertiliser or plant protection products or to afford to adequately prepare a seedbed for a new crop. In contrast farmers who own significant assets can use them to fund consumption in the aftermath of crop failure and be able to resume production in following years.

Essentially this suggests that in responding to climate change poverty is a major obstacle. Poverty cannot be overcome by strategies that are limited to agriculture. Much more depends on activity in the economy within which farmers operate. Many different interactions are involved, for example:

Where there is a buoyant non-farming economy opportunities exist to earn income from temporary work, supplementing farm incomes during periods of crop failure and protecting future productive capacity.

A growing non-farm economy will attract farmers and farm workers out of agriculture thus leading to a structural change in farming. The consequences of such change are likely to be slow to appear but over time they should result in greater resilience for those who continue to farm.

The direction of change is to larger farms, labour saving technology and buying in specialist services from other suppliers, some of whom may themselves be farmers. Such change can also facilitate the planning of production in ways that reflect market pressures and embody new technology. Within such a system risks can be shared over a variety of enterprises – again enhancing the robustness of the farm and facilitating longer-term investment.

As the scale of activity increases, the participants are better able to participate in financial markets. Such markets can provide liquidity to fund investment and enable any surplus after a good year to earn an income without increased exposure to the volatility of agricultural markets.

The social impact of poverty also affects the uptake of new technology. As real incomes rise, choices about having children change. For very poor people a new child may be seen as a potential worker in the field and an assurance of support in old age. Contraception may be seen as costly.

As incomes rise, labour on the farm is replaced by technology and aspirations for a higher standard of life for children grow, there is a perceived benefit in limiting family size.

These considerations point to a need to consider the way in which the political and economic context determines the capacity of farmers to apply technologies that respond positively to climate change.

The development of competitive supply and processing enterprises, the emergence of transparent financial markets, the development of IT both as an educational tool and a means of trading can all help to generate additional employment in the rural sector.

Khatri-Chhetri and Aggrawal properly concentrate on activity within the agricultural sector. The point of this editorial is that the uptake of climate responsive farming practices may depend on changes in the non-farm rural economy.

Development in this territory may contribute to the restructuring of farm businesses to be better able to use these methods even within a market that is volatile and may become more so.