Our Arsenal Against Climate Change

The evidence is real and it paints a stark picture. Data such as that from India’s Network for Climate Change Assessment indicating a net increase of 1.7 to 2 degrees in annual temperature by the year 2030 is no longer prudent or possible for us to ignore. The specter of climate change is casting a long shadow on agriculture – across the world but particularly in India.
Drought affects 45% of the world’s geographical area and 38% of its population. Salinity, sodicity and extreme climatic conditions hinder land utilization by farming communities everywhere. India’s growers, and especially its smallholder farmers, are even more vulnerable because erratic weather patterns can wreak havoc on their best-laid cultivation plans.
In the absence of adequate irrigation infrastructure, farmers depend on predictable rainfall to meet their water needs. Water shortage greatly hampers the production of crops such as maize and rice. Much of the country’s farmland – primarily in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra is affected by salinity ingress. It is imperative to address these challenges in order to ward off a food shortage crisis in the country.
Data of this nature is what makes the work of our industry doubly important in my mind. Based on the success of salinity trials in the field, we know that this is one abiotic stress we can counter with weapons in our arsenal. Work in the area of drought tolerance and precision breeding also shows similar potential for large-scale impact.
However, the process involved in getting such innovation ready for the market is an arduous one. Our product cycles tend to be long – ten to twelve years on average – and rival drug discovery in their painstaking attention to data and details. Before a product is deemed suitable for even field trials, it has to get past several regulatory hurdles. This is something those of us who work in this field fully understand and have accepted by now. We know that any viable piece of research output has to pass rigorous tests and convince industry skeptics before we can even think in terms of a market strategy for it.
In addition to this regulatory oversight, there is also relentless public scrutiny of such research, spurred by the belief that it is funded by multinationals with vested interests and self-serving agendas.
These assumptions are unfounded but since they are rooted in emotional arguments, they can be hard to counter with just plain facts.
It doesn’t need to be so complicated in my view. There are some pressing issues in front of humanity today that can be addressed with solutions that are within our reach.
With the world’s population expected to reach eight billion by 2025, boosting global food security and reducing the burden on farmers should be at the top of the agendas of policy makers. We need to forego short-term thinking and work for an agricultural system that moves us closer to these goals.
It means creating an environment that is more innovation friendly. Biotechnology offers many advantages over traditional techniques of plant breeding and possible solutions to previously intractable problems spanning drought tolerance as well as yield and nutritional optimization. Contrary to popular belief, it could also prove to be a weapon in sustainable agriculture. For example, herbicide-tolerant varieties of biotech crops facilitate ecologically sound farming practices such as conservation tillage. This helps to reduce soil erosion, promote water infiltration and maintain soil quality. By allowing farmers to extract more from available land, biotechnology minimizes the encroachment of farming communities into forests and other sensitive wildlife habitats.
Leaving crop cultivation vulnerable to climate change – which seems very likely in the near future – will be a blunder. We need to act now to ensure that we invest in research for future technologies and enable farmers to reap the associated socio-economic benefits.
Government agencies and agricultural bodies should come together to drive such research across the public and private sectors. In the current environment, researchers are unsure of the ultimate outcomes of their work and this can be demoralizing and disheartening.
What keeps those of us in this field going are the feelers we get from those who are bearing the brunt of climate change. When we talk to farmers, we sense an openness to new technology and techniques that is lacking in those who are a few levels removed from this ground reality.
The farmer needs ways to reduce his exposure to climate change as much as possible. Consumers need a reliable supply of food at prices that are within their means. Technology can offer solutions to achieve both of these critical objectives. We just have to open our minds to all its possibilities.