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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

Written by Peter

February 19th, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Farmers adapting to climate change:
Naakpi Kuunwena from Ghana

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Vegetable farm in Ghana

His name is written “Naakpi” and pronounced “Naakwi”, that we understood fast. But it took us much longer to comprehend why Naakpi looked so tired, and walked around with a back bent as if he had a burden too heavy for one man to carry.

We understood even less as we walked through an opening in the earth wall surrounding his farm and stepped onto his vegetable field: This one hectare plot was the largest, greenest and best maintained vegetable field we had seen so far. The cabbage, beans, tomato, peppers all stood in straight lines. A perfectly geometric maze of five inch wide irrigation canals divided the field into small sub-plots devour of any weeds.

All of us stood in awe. The sight of green that lush came as a surprise. So far, during our West-Africa trip for the Adaptation and Mitigation Knowledge Network (AMKN), we had been interviewing farmers harvesting at this time, one to two months into the dry season. Here, in Lawra – Northeast Ghana, it had been no different. But Naakpi still had a green plot. Why then did it not make him a happy man?

“This is by far the nicest plot I have seen so far, Naakpi”, I said, and congratulated him. He looked at me with sad eyes and shrugged: “Give it one more month, and I will loose it all”, he said. He told us the story.

Naakpi’s vegetable farm needs water “Water is a must for vegetables”, he explained, “As we grow groundnuts, maize, sorghum and millet during the rainy season, we use the dry season to grow vegetables. In the past I used to have a small plot and watered the plants using buckets. As my plot grew to one hectare, we now use small irrigation channels, and need much more water.”

An NGO dug a borehole on his field, but as the weather changed, the rains started later, and stopped earlier, the water level dropped. “I can not get anything from that well anymore”, Naakpi said, “Maybe three or four buckets per day, that’s it. But I need much more.”

Naakpi pumps water from the riverSo he invested in a motor pump, to transfer water from the river next to his plot. “I also dammed the river”, he said, showing us the four foot high stone dam he cemented right under a bridge. “Each year, during the rainy season, we build this dam. At the end of the dry season, we break it down again. For several years, it guaranteed us of sufficient water, throughout the dry season. Now, it is different.”

The river in Lawra is running dry“Even though we were only two months into the dry season, the water level had dropped that low, I had to build a secondary earth dam, only four inch high, to keep the water from seeping through the stone dam. I know this little water will run out in a few weeks. It won’t cover until we harvest the vegetables.”

Naakpi stretched his arm and slowly turned over his plot. “All what you see here, all this green, will be lost. We will loose this crop. No water, no vegetables, as simple as that. Only a miracle can save us, otherwise within three weeks, all of this will turn brown, and die.”

A miracle could only come under the shape of rains, but as this was the dry season, there was no hope. The next rains would come in six months time, at the earliest.

Naakpi would indeed loose his crop. And now, I understood why he looked as burdened as he was. The only hope he had was for sufficient rains next year, but as the weather patterns had shifted in the past four year, even that looked very unlikely.

For the first time in my interview tour, I saw a farmer who was loosing the battle against climate change. For the first time I really understood the importance of the AMKN initiative sharing research and farmer adaptation methods: Naakpi was not the only farmer in the world battling drought. Solutions in enhanced water management and alternative irrigation methods existed. We need to make that knowledge accessible so that farmers like Naakpi, could turn the odds around.

Read my original post on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

December 25th, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Expensive Food, Poor Farmer.

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Work in rice paddy

1. The global export food prices have been skyrocketing since months (Post)
2. Combined with the raising fuel prices, it has caused – what is called – “A Global Food Crisis”, urged by world leaders to be tackled urgently. (Post)
3. The crisis has sparked the question if the world can produce enough food to feed itself and how we can find ways to increase crop yields. (Post)

Yet, something is wrong with this picture… Take the case of Thailand:

1. 3 billion people worldwide rely on rice as a staple food (Source)
2. Thailand is one of the world’s main rice exporters (Source)

thailand export

3. The price of Thai B grade rice, a widely traded variety, reached $795 per ton in April, an increase of 147 percent from a year earlier. Source)

rice price

4. And yet, Thai rice farmers are getting a lower price for their produce, because of the highly successful crop this year (Source), urging the Thai government to bring in a subsidy scheme buying up 2.5 million tons of rice at a higher-than-market price. (Source)

Do you see the disparity?
- The world rice market soars, and yet the Thai rice farmers are getting less and less for their crop. Who picks up the profits of the high world market prices then?
- Even if the world would produce sufficient food to meet the demand, would that cause the food prices to drop? Or are they artificially kept high because of international profiteering on the financial markets?

You might think this is only the case in Thailand, but not so. Even in the US, farmers are complaining they only get 20 cents of every food dollar spent by consumers. Distribution and retailing account for 80 percent of retail prices. No surprise the world’s farmers feel bypassed at the UN food summit. (Full)

More articles on The Road about the global food crisis

Graphs courtesy FAO and International Herald Tribune
Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Written by Peter

June 7th, 2008 at 1:22 am

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