India’s farmers need two weapons to counter climate change and its negative impact. One is adequate and dependable insurance coverage. The other is technology that gives them accurate and relevant information when they most need it in the production cycle.
Changing weather patterns are increasingly manifesting themselves in stronger and more formidable ways. The recent Chennai deluge, back-to-back droughts induced by El Nino – all of these herald bigger calamities in the future unless we treat climate change as a serious threat to the environment and to humanity.
Knowing about approaching perils will help one to be better armed. Being forewarned becomes an even greater imperative in the face of such rapid climate change.
The impact of climate change on Indian agriculture is a discussion that always leads to apocalyptic predictions. I have been looking at this interaction for years and have also explored it for evidence of any positive trends in this scenario. What I have found has been interesting.
CO2 concentrations have been increasing continuously in recent decades. Subject to the availability of moisture, this parameter will actually boost crop productivity and positively impact agriculture. This is because a higher concentration of CO2 stimulates the photosynthesis process. When plants absorb more carbon, they grow faster. In addition, increased CO2 concentrations tend to suppress photo respiration, making them more water-efficient. Unfortunately, this is where the good news ends.
The rest of the scientific evidence tends to point in the opposite direction and indicates that climate change has adversely affected Indian agriculture and will continue to do so. Agriculture and allied sectors contribute to 17% of the country’s GDP and affect 650 million Indians. This makes climate change even more contentious. The government and its citizens need to think and strategize around it.
India is a large country that experiences huge variation in climatic conditions within its boundaries. The agricultural practices of a country with such diverse agro-climatic zones depend upon several factors, including natural resources, geographical location, traditional practices, government preferences, international trade agreements, public opinion and concerns, and environmental fluctuations. A forewarning of changing climatic parameters can help farmers in modifying their agricultural practices.
One recurring instance of climate change impact is El Nino in the Pacific. There is an established inverse correlation between El Nino and the Indian Summer Monsoon (ISMR). On average, the period between 1900 and 2000 witnessed one drought per decade. Between 2000 and 2015, there have already been five.
India is literally drying out. In addition, there is an increase in the mean annual air temperature in many regions of the country. There has also been a significant increase in the number of hot days, as well as in day and night temperatures from 1951 to 2013. At the same time, all India Monsoon rainfall has been decreasing from 1960 onward (Fig 1). Figure 1: Temperature (Top) and all India Monsoon rainfall (Bottom) trends between 1900 and 2014.
Decrease in rainfall and increase in air temperature could lead to persistent moisture deficit conditions, hampering crop production in India. Frequent droughts during the Monsoon under current and projected climatic conditions will pose enormous challenges for this production. Another important observation of climate change is that while rainfall averages remain the same, there are fewer rainy days. This could mean more extreme events and contrary weather risks like floods and droughts within the same season.
Climate change is also undoing many of the achievements of the green revolution. Until a few years ago, India remained drought resilient if not drought proof. In the past few decades, the Rabi crop had begun insulating India from a Kharif crop failure with the former even surpassing the latter in some years.
At one point, wheat had become as important as Paddy as Rabi grew to be a hardy season with very little risk of crop failure. However, over the last two years this has changed. The Rabi crop has become vulnerable to unseasonal rain in March and April. With the shadow of unseasonal rainfall and hailstorm hovering over it, the fate of Rabi 2015-16 is uncertain. India is on the verge of experiencing four consecutive failed agricultural seasons.
I think the impact of climate change is irreversible. Although the world has agreed on measures to contain global warming at COP 21, the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, we need to accept and adapt to climate risk. At Skymet, we believe that financial engineering and transferring of weather risks from around the world is the way forward. Weather derivative is a potent weapon in blunting the adverse impact of climate change.
Crop production in India is severely impacted by the vagaries of weather. Pests and diseases further complicate the scenario. These unpredictable extraneous perils make Indian agriculture an extremely risky enterprise, especially in today’s world of climate change. It is here that crop insurance plays a pivotal role in imparting some stability to the sector.
Crop insurance has been evolving sporadically but continuously over the past thirty-one years. The first ‘avataar’, the Comprehensive Crop insurance scheme (CCIS), was rolled out in 1985 and was followed by several other flawed and inherently political schemes. The current government’s new Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) seems a promising scheme that has totally privatized crop insurance in India and reduced the subsidy of farmers to almost zero.
Technology and Agriculture
Leveraging new technologies in agriculture is also an important part of the solution.
Technology is omnipresent in our daily lives, from the moment we wake up to the time we retire at night. Technology makes life simpler, cuts costs and improves efficiency. Agriculture has not remained untouched by its productivity enhancing changes. But the propagation of technology and its implementation at the ground level is unsatisfactory in India. This could be partly attributed to a lack of awareness among farmers, who are consequently not as open to adoption of technologies as their counterparts in the Western world.
‘Remote’ technology, however, has been harnessed in the sector and has been catering to the information needs of different stakeholders.
Satellite remote sensing has been very useful in providing fairly accurate and timely data on sowing trends, acreages of different crops, mid-season crop stressors, harvesting trends, yield and production estimates. Its only impediment is the challenge of gathering information under cloud cover during the monsoon. This challenge has been overcome by ‘Nano-Satellites’, constellations of multiple satellites that can revisit the same area in a very short time, i.e., in about two to five days. This has significantly improved the capability of getting high-resolution cloud-free images of the ground.
Other options include traditional aerial photography and the easily usable technology of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). The UAV or DRONE (Dynamic Remotely Operated Navigation Equipment) flies very close to the ground and can collect very valuable crop related information that can be readily used by farmers and others. This is particularly useful in crop field specific studies. These can also provide ‘farm-specific’ information on crop conditions and loss estimates, thus delivering relevant information and benefits to the right people.
In the forecasting industry, we have leveraged vast amounts of weather station data available to us. We have also consolidated local inputs gathered through smart phones and sensors mounted on drones along with cadastral information from Government sources. These have been our input for advanced crop simulation models that provide high accuracy yield data. These models can be adopted for large area studies while maintaining cost advantages.
Information and communications technology (ICT) – encompassing any device, tool or application that permits the exchange or collection of data through interaction or transmission – also shows tremendous potential to improve agriculture, specifically in developing countries. ICT is an umbrella term that includes anything ranging from radio to satellite imagery, mobile phones and even electronic money transfers.
Thus, we can conclude that end-to-end solutions seem to be the need of the hour. We are uniquely placed in India. We have the capability to develop and put several tools and techniques to test. At the same time, we are fortunate to have a vast expanse of agricultural land waiting for the next revolution to happen.