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About adaptation, mitigation, floods and the need for information

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Punjab farmer on dam

 

Climate change adaptation and mitigation in agriculture is more than merely “the need for better seeds”. It needs a way to exchange information so we can re-apply proven solutions rather than re-inventing the wheel every single time….

In a wide, slow gesture, Gurbachan Singh shows me a panorama of lush fields. It is as if his hand touches the abundant, young wheat sprouts from afar. They are bright green, showing a promise of a plentiful harvest. Wide fields are bordered with tall poplar trees whose leafs softly whisper in the light wind, chasing away the early morning mist.

“All of this”, says Gurbachan, “All of this was gone. Flooded. As far as you can see. All of it. People had fled to higher grounds, but the twenty-four hours notice we had before the flood, was not sufficient to evacuate all live stock. Most buffalo and cows drowned. The harvest was lost.”

We are standing near the village of Bhoda in Punjab, North West India. From a large dike, made of sandbags, probably five metres (15 ft) high, we see the river, flowing slowly beneath us. It is hard to imagine that in July last year, this small stream had swollen with a mighty force, digging a hole in the dike, half a mile long.

“Remember the massive floods in Pakistan, around August last year?”, asks Gurbachan, “Well, we are up river from them. When the unusual strong monsoon rains, came streaming down from the mountains, it hit us a month earlier. We hardly had time to tell everyone to move. The dike burst in no time. As soon as there was a hole in the dike, water just streamed through. In a few hours, everything you see here, all the way to the horizon, was all flooded.”

And the water kept coming. With the help of an engineer, the villagers made an emergency dam with tens of thousands of sandbags. “The government promised they would rebuild the permanent dike, but we are still waiting. The sandbags were supposed to be a temporary measure. They are only filled with sand. The sun consumes the bags, so the sand leaks out of it.”

A dozen villagers have joined us, injecting comments into the discussion… There voices are loud and angry. “We get no help from the government”, they argue, “All their promises don’t mean a thing. By the next monsoon, five months from now, these sandbags will wash away. We need a proper dike, lined with stones. We should plant trees on it so the roots can hold the dike together.”

But it is not just here, in Bhoda, where the dike is fragile. All along the river for tens of miles, the river edges are low, leaving large areas prone to flooding. “Even if flooding might be stopped here, dikes anywhere else might break. And each flood will take dozens of animals with it, and destroy the crops of entire villages in a few hours time“, Gurbachan argues.

“Next year, it might even be worse”, another villager warns, “If the weather keeps on changing, and the rains continue to get heavier, maybe next year, we will not get a 24 hours notice before the flood waters hit us. Maybe the flood will be higher; maybe we will have a flood like in Pakistan, where entire provinces were wiped out. And then? Who will help us then?”.

And then something I have heard during many interviews with farmers in India: “The risk of farming has become too big”, says one of the village elders, “The cost and efforts we have to do, to earn a living, have become too high. But the worst is, we know, that we might loose our entire crop in the next flood. We know the risk is high. So every day we work on the fields, feels like it is a day of efforts in vain“, says another farmer. Others agree: “This is no future for our children.”

“You should help us”, another elder says, “You should tell our story to the people. We need proper protection against the floods. If the government can not help us, we should take matters in our own hands. So tell the story, maybe things will change. Maybe someone knows how to avoid this flooding. The weather, we can not change, but you can help us protect our crops, our lives!”

That is why I wrote the story. It shows that climate change adaptation and mitigation in agriculture is not only an issue of finding adapted seed varieties, teaching better irrigation methods and finding new fertilizer application techniques. Assisting farmers to cope with the challenges covers a wide area, and many aspects.

Above all, this flood story shows the need to be able to find and exchange the information. I am not an infrastructural specialist, nor a flood mitigation engineer. But I would assume that someone “out there” has worked in a flood prone area, and found a solution, other than building tens of miles of dikes, which might only move the flooding problems further downstream…

Originally posted on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

March 27th, 2011 at 10:28 pm

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Teak trees or food crops: Will climate change force farmers to make a choice?

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teak seedling

One or two generations ago, smallholder farmers might have grown food crops mainly to feed their own families. But those days are gone. Farmers are looking more and more for cash income.

Like in Bihar, North-Central India: farmers still value the “yield” of a crop, but the “revenue” becomes increasingly important. It is not just because of the “Modern Times”, where electricity bills and school fees are to be paid, and people want to buy a mobile phone, a television or a tractor.
No, there is more than that: climate change has chased up the expenses: boreholes, mechanical or electric pumps, hybrid seeds… Each of these has a price ticket attached to it. A price ticket, farmers are scrambling to pay, but a necessity for any land to bare any crop.

The droughts
A good crowd had gathered in Rambad, a small village in Bihar. Both young and old, from the better-off farmers to the day labourers, all were sitting around us. We were talking about the change in weather, the effects it had on this farmers’ community and ways these people have tried to adapt over time.

When we asked who of the farmers had experimented with new things in the past years, they pointed out a slim man, probably in his late thirties, standing in a bit of a distance. As we all looked at him, he came nearer, stood up straight and held his arms stiff along his body as he said his name, “Vidyabhushan Kumar”, in a loud voice. As if a teacher had just summoned him. We asked Vidyabhushan to sit with us and tell his story.

At first, his story did not differ much from many others we heard in North India: He had a small plot of land, shared with his brothers, where they used to crop wheat and maize. In the past years, the rains have become less predictable: the monsoon comes later, and is shorter. Water has become scarce. The yearly floods bringing in new soil and moisture to the fields are a thing of the past now.

The expenses
“Nowadays, no borehole, no crops”, Vidyabhushan explained, “We need to irrigate our fields, so we have to pump water from the boreholes. But it costs money to dig a borehole. Pump sets are expensive too. They require diesel to run, and need maintenance. All of that costs money, money we need to get from what we produce. No matter what we produce, we need to look at the market value; we look at the revenue it brings.”

In the past years, Vidyabhushan started to crop vegetables after the wheat and maize harvest. “I can get several crops of vegetables before I need to sow wheat again”, he said, “but still that is not enough to provide an income for my family. I needed more.”

Teak, a new source of income.
He took us to the flat roof of his house. In a corner about one hundred small seedlings stood together.

“Teak”, he said, “These are teak seedlings. You see, I calculated: I can buy these at 76 rupees a piece (about US$ 2). The tree needs 10 years to mature, and its timber will bring me 30,000 to 40,000 rupees (US$750 to US$1,000) for each tree. If I plant teak trees on the border of my field, about 6 feet apart, I can plant one hundred teak trees. This will give me a cash revenue of about 300,000 rupees (US$7,500) per year.”

“There is a big teak market abroad, so the resale value is almost guaranteed.” Vidyabhushan smiled, “ But my risks are low. Teak trees don’t need a lot of water, and they don’t conflict with my other crops. The trees can just grow on the edge of my fields. These trees will bring me the cash I need, both for my family, and to counter the increased expenses I have with my other crops. ”

The future: cash or food?
He kneeled down to pick up one of the seedlings. I noticed how careful and softly he handles the tiny plant as he shows it to me. It was as if he was holding his future in his hands.

When we thanked him for the interview, he said “No, don’t go yet, I still want to show you my field, and my crops.” Vidyabhushan smiled as he walked through his vegetable patch: “You see, we can’t eat timber, we can’t eat money. No matter how the market would change, no matter of the revenue teak would bring me, I still need to feed my family. And for that I need to grow food, not just timber!”

But maybe, he is the last generation to still think so. Maybe, as the climate changes, erratic rains, droughts and pests might push farmers’ expenses even higher. Would the next generation of farmers then think of “Revenue only”-crops? What would happen then if they’d stop growing food crops? What would happen if smallholder farmers would switch to non-food crops on a large scale?

Read the original post on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

March 8th, 2011 at 3:14 pm

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Climate change, smallholder farmers and the cycle of poverty

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Indian woman

When discussing climate change, we often discuss about the technical part of “agriculture”: crop varieties, irrigation or farming methods. But climate change also has a profound social impact within the rural communities, which rely mostly on agriculture. Climate change will push many smallholder farmers over “the edge”, back into poverty.

Arti Devi from Rambad in Bihar, India, is one of them.

Arti is married and has three children, two girls and a boy. Up to some years ago, she owned a small plot of land where she cultivated wheat and some vegetables, and had two buffaloes. This was sufficient to provide food and an income to her family.

“As the weather changed, we had less rain in this region. The yearly floods which used to bring in new fertile soil to my fields, just stopped. So my field yielded less and less.”, Arti explains, “As the lands dried up, it also became more difficult to find fodder for the buffaloes”.

To make matters worse, a few years ago, her husband had an accident. It disabled him from working on the fields so now he works as labourer in the city. He earns 1,000 rupees (about US$25) per month. Half of it, he sends home to Arti.

“We had no savings to cover my husband’s initial medical expenses”, she whispers, “So, we first had to mortgage our land, and later on, we had to sell the buffaloes. Now, I am left with no land, and no animals. I have to work as day labourer on other people’s fields. That’s my income now.”

For six hours of work on the fields, she gets about 20 rupees (about US$0.5) and 2-3 kgs of vegetables. “But with this changing weather, things got even worse”, Arti says, “I used to be able to work about three weeks per month, and six month per year. But now, the fields yield less. Some fields are left fallow during summer as there is not enough water in the boreholes. So there is less work for us, day labourers. Now, we can only work maybe fifteen days per month, and four months per year.”

“The only option I had was to take my oldest daughter from school. She now works as a day labourer also. Once my youngest daughter will be a bit older, she will help me on the fields also. I will try to keep my son in school, so he can get a decent job later. But I am not sure if I will manage. We hardly manage to buy our food.”

And that is where the cycle starts back at the beginning.

The original post was published on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

March 4th, 2011 at 3:33 pm

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More precious than gold: Preserving bioversity at the genebank

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ICRISAT genebank

Germplasm collection”, “allele diversity”, “Crop registers”, might sound like mystic academic terms to you. Likewise for me, I could hardly link them into the discussion about climate change and food security…. Until I visited the genebank on the ICRISAT campus near Hyderabad in India.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is a non-profit organization conducting agricultural research for development in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. ICRISAT is part of a consortium of similar agricultural research centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
…and they have a bank. Not to store money or gold, but to safeguard something much more precious: the genetic material – or “germplasm”- of 119,000 “accessions” -or varieties- of sorghum, pearl millet and six other types of small millets, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut, collected from 144 countries.

“Genetic diversity is key to the future”
Over thousands of years, different food crops have evolved into zillions of different varieties, either grown as a cultivated crop, or flourishing in the wild. Each variety differs from the next in the way it naturally adapted its genetic code to the environment it grows in: how it deals with drought or a high soil salinity, how it built up resistance to certain pests. Many differ in their yield, size, leaves or roots.

But, as Bob Dylan sung: “Times are a-changing”. Farmers now often concentrate on monocultures, or grow only a selection of high yielding crops. Commercial companies have been “successful” in promoting certain varieties, which farmers adopted quickly, and –thanks to globalization- were spread widely. Understandably so, as “the world needs to produce more food”. However, all of this became nefast for the bio-diversity: Today, the rate in which traditional seed varieties disappear, is higher than ever.
This stands in stark contrast with the demand for more and specialized seed varieties, adapted to the ever changing weather patterns. If the genetic biodiversity disappears, where will we find the seed varieties helping farmers to cope with future environmental changes?

Unless if we safeguard our existing seed varieties for the wide range of crops the world grows, we will no longer have the genetic material to re-generate seeds adapted to the future climate changes.

And that is where genebanks come in. Genebanks like the one I was standing in this morning, at ICRISAT.

ICRISAT’s genebank: saving our past, for our future.

In two large earthquake proof and environment controlled “vaults”, ICRISAT’s genebank is safeguarding the bioversity of sorghum, millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut. These crops might not be staple food such as wheat, maize or rice, but they are just as essential to a balance diet of the world’s ever growing population, particularly for the poorest of the poor in the semi-arid tropics.

It is a common misunderstanding that malnutrition is only caused by the lack of SUFFICIENT food to eat. More often than not, malnutrition is caused by a lack of THE RIGHT food, containing all nutrients, like proteins and vitamins which make a balanced diet.

Take the case of chickpeas: did you know that chickpeas make up for more than 20 percent of world pulse production? Did you know that chickpeas contain 25% proteins, the maximum provided by any pulse? While in the developed world, the protein intake comes mostly from fish or meat, in the majority of the developing countries this is not the case: Fish or meat is a luxury commodity, and people have to resort to pulses like chickpeas for their daily protein intake. That makes chickpeas an important crop in the global fight against hunger.

To safeguard the variety of commodities like chickpeas, allowing researchers to re-create old varieties or generate new varieties, adapted to the ever changing climate, the genetic material needs to be saved. And that is the role of a genebank.

Over the past thirty years, the ICRISAT genebank collected and stored over 20,000 different varieties of chickpeas, collected from 60 countries, making it the largest of its kind in the world. And not only for chickpeas, but for the more than 119,000 varieties of the 11 crop types it caters for.

The genebank collects and stores seeds

Sube Singh, a lead scientific officer, who has worked in ICRISAT’s genebank since 1978, explains: “The collection, selection and storage of the genetic material of our seeds is an elaborate process. It is not just a matter of taking just “any” seed, and storing it in a bag.
We get seed material, sometimes as little as 100 seeds in a single sample. First we verify the characteristics of that particular variety: its origin, the growing period, the yield, resistance to pests or drought, and hundreds of other characteristics which make the genetic difference between the varieties. If we find we don’t have this variety yet, the seed sample goes into a quarantine area where we ensure the seed is free of any contamination or pest, as this could affect all other seeds we store or cultivate. After it is certified to be safe, we can process it further.”

“But the work does not stop there”, Mr Sing continues:  “An extensive biochemical analysis gives us further details on the seed sample’s characteristics, which are all stored in a central database. For some seeds, we need to regenerate it: if we only have a limited quantity, we reproduce new seeds from the sample we received, either in quarantined greenhouses or on our test fields.”

After a drying process, seeds are then stored into the “active collection”, an isolated vault storing the seeds in bottles, at +4 o C, where they can be kept for 25 to 30 years. Each seed variety is checked every five years to see if its capacity to reproduce is not degrading. The second vault, the “base collection”, stores seeds at -20 o C, where they can be kept for 100 years.

But the strength of a genebank is not in storing alone.

When I ask Sube what the real value of genebank is, his eyes light up…: “The more seeds which are re-used, the better. That is our real success factor”. He gave the example of Iraq and Afghanistan where the war wiped out those two countries’ genebank. There was no way to find the “core” seeds of the local food stocks anymore. This would have been catastrophic for the agriculture and the population as a whole, if it was not for the ICRISAT genebank: Local varieties of these crops were stored at the bank before the war. Samples were “repatriated” to both countries so the seeds could be regenerated, and distributed “en masse” to the farmers.

But it is not only Iraq and Iran. In the past thirty odd years, the ICRISAT genebank has distributed 1.4 million samples to 143 countries. Some of these varieties would have been lost for ever, if it wasn’t for the ICRISAT genebank.

Creating a future, thanks to the past.

Doomsday-like scenarios where countries loose their genetic material might be one –rather negative- example showing the importance of genebanks. A much more common use of biodiverse genetic material, is to generate new varieties, adapted to newly emerging needs.

Taking the example of chickpeas again, research showed that several accessions (or varieties) from a mini-core collection at the genebank were more drought resistant than the common “ICC4958” variety, widely used in semi-arid areas. Using the ICRISAT seed collection, new and better varieties were created and distributed.

“Drought resistance” is just one of the many qualifiers. Imagine what the impact is when one wants to create new varieties adapted to warmer or colder climates, resistant to pests, or to salinity…

“Salinity is a good example”, says Sube. “The 2004 tsunami contaminated millions of hectares of agricultural land with sea water. All of sudden, farmers found that their traditional seeds could no longer grow in this saltier environment. Through the genebank, we generated varieties which were adapted to their changed environment: varieties with a higher salinity resistance.”

As Sube was explaining me the mechanics and process of the selection and storage, the image of a coin collector came to my mind. I asked him: “An antique coin collector often has one piece he is particularly proud of, do you have one seed variety or one specific ‘find’, which you cherish like gold?”.

Sube smiled: “New varieties are created every day. One hundred year old samples, or a variety cultivated last year, for us, all have the same value, all are equally precious. For us, every seed sample is like gold”.

Read the original post on the CCAFS blog.

Written by Peter

February 19th, 2011 at 4:20 pm

About Super Chickpeas and Silent Heroes

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ICRISAT researcher in test field

During my past visits to Kenya, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso, one common streak always came up when talking to farmers about climate adaptation techniques: they were all actively using new seed varieties for their different crops.

I had not really questioned where those seed varieties came from. I saw them in the shops of commercial seed traders, so I asked no more. A bit like a child does not ask where Santa comes from. A long and complex process of seed selection and breeding remained hidden for me.

A visit to ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics near Hyderabad in India, changed all of that. I discovered the world’s headquarter for the agriculture research on five crops: sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut. And I discovered the link between chickpeas, chickpea heroes and the war against hunger.

Food diets, malnutrition and chickpeas
Sufficient food, but also a balanced food intake are key to battle malnutrition. Often the world’s attention goes to staple foods like rice, maize or wheat. We often forget it takes other crops too, to make a balanced diet, in a global fight against hunger.

Chickpeas is one of those crops, and an important one, as they make up for more than 20 percent of the world pulse production. Chickpeas contain 22-25% proteins, and 2-3 times more iron and zinc than wheat. Chickpea protein quality is better than other pulses. …

So understandably, agricultural researchers, like Dr. Pooran M.Gaur, a principal scientist and chickpea breeder at ICRISAT, make continuous efforts to develop new chickpea varieties, adapted to fast changing environmental conditions. “Super Chickpeas”, as it were. Bred by –what I would not hesitate to call – “super scientists”, in the quiet isolation of agricultural research centers.

Agricultural research in service of food security
I meet Pooran amidst the ICRISAT chickpea test fields in Patancheru, near Hyderabad in India. He tells me a story which illustrates the importance, and profound impact agricultural research can have on food production, and food security: “In India, for hundreds of years, chickpeas have been grown in the relatively colder Northern areas during the dry winter season where they flourish in temperatures of 20 to 30 dgr C. The traditional chickpea varieties were not really suitable for the climate here in Andhra Pradesh for instance. They were late maturing and required longer duration (more than 120 days) to grow. That stretched the crop to grow into the hot season and moisture stress conditions. Ten years ago, only 160,000 hectares of chickpeas were grown in this state. The yield was only about 600 kgs/hectare.”

But things changed in recent years. Using a combination of different chickpea seed varieties which had a shorter growing season, and which were more resistant to higher temperatures, agricultural researchers like Pooran were able to breed varieties which needed only 90 to 95 days to mature.

“We distributed samples of these new varieties to universities and government institutes who tested them, and were impressed about the results. One particular variety, released as “JG11”, has thoroughly impacted the production of chickpeas in India, especially in the South.”

JG11 was rapidly adopted by many farmers in central and southern India. “Here in Andhra Pradesh, in just a few years, the total surface of chickpea cultivation increased to 630,000 hectares, a fourfold from before. But even more importantly, the average yield increased from 600 to 1,400 kgs/hectare, almost three times as much.”, Pooran explains.

Knowing how important chickpeas are in the typical Indian diet, one can say the impact of the new variety’s ninefold production increase had a profound impact.

But it is not the end of the road for chickpeas
As the “Super Chickpea” early varieties – like JG11 – are now widely used in India, and different parts of Asia and Africa, ICRISAT concentrates on other new varieties to help farmers adapt to the ever changing climate and environmental conditions.

“We use various parameters to select our breeding materials”, Pooran stresses. “We are developing varieties which are early maturing and high yielding, tolerant to drought and heat stresses, resistant to deceases and insect infestation, and have good seed quality”

ICRISAT supplies improved breeding lines to universities and government research institutes, who select the best lines, and release these as varieties. Further down the seed chain, the research institutes produce “breeder seed” which is used by the public and private seed sectors to produce “foundation seeds” and then “certified seeds”, which are sold to the farmers.
Up to now, ICRISAT -bred chickpea materials have led to the release of 73 new varieties in 10 countries.

Working for impact.
I ask Pooran if after 25 years working as a chickpea breeder, he ever thought of moving to another crop? “No way”, he answers, “chickpeas are ‘it’ for me. The world produces about 9 million tons of chickpeas per year, in 50 countries. These are not only used for their own production, but also as a cash crop, as over 140 countries import chickpeas. So the demand is high. For the poor in the world, combined with a staple food of rice, maize, sorghum, millet or any wheat, chickpeas make a perfect diet. It contains a lot of protein and is rich in minerals, amino acids and several vitamins.”

“But there is more to it: Chickpea is a hardy crop and can be grown in marginal lands on residual moisture, where the high-input crops fail to give economic returns. It is able to take much of its nitrogen requirement from the atmosphere by forming a symbiotic association with soil bacteria called rhizobium, and thus does not need much fertilizer.”

So when asked what his dream is, Pooran answers: “I would like to increase the global awareness of the qualities of chickpeas. Here at ICRISAT, we have already directly contributed to new varieties now used in semi-arid areas in several countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, which are prone to hunger and malnutrition. But we can spread it further. We also need to emphasize to farmers that chickpeas are not just a low input or a diversity crop: with the new varieties we are breeding now, farmers should be able to select those varieties adapted to their fields, and the changing weather. They need to be taught proper crop production technologies, so their yields can further increase”.

“Mr Super Chickpea”, is clearly a man with a mission. And he is not alone in the battle against hunger. Every day, dozens of researchers at ICRISAT, and thousands like them in similar research institutes join in his cause, helping farmers around the globe to adapt to climate change.

We can rightfully call them, “the silent heroes in the war against hunger”.

The original article was published on the CCAFS blog

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Written by Peter

February 19th, 2011 at 2:41 pm