G’nY. How can agroecology or nature based solutions help transform agriculture in the South Asian region?
What we have had previously in the Green Revolution was a strong technology-oriented fertiliser-pesticide-irrigation combined agricultural productivity increase. This was successful to some extent. But on the other hand, it caused problems with preserving natural conditions. Going forward, we need to be learning lessons from not over-relying on chemical inputs— fertilisers or pesticides, but looking at natural ways of managing pests and enhancing productivity. For instance, if we were to not necessarily practise monocropping, but look at say, multiple cropping making it much more in consonance with the local conditions. Agriculture is no longer just about growing a crop—it also includes livestock, fisheries and aquaculture. All of these are now part of the bigger picture of taking agriculture forward. If we want to transform, we need to move forward with multiple opportunities or a multiplicity of actions rather than a single big monocropping model that has happened in the past.
There are many, many opportunities for doing that, which will make our agricultural system, the whole system, not just single crops, more resilient. This will help combat climate change as well as economic impacts. Resilience is the key. Rather than just enhancing productivity and production, we are moving in the direction of developing ways to enhance resilience. One other important element is the need to empower citizens, particularly farmers, fishers and livestock herders. They are not just the recipients of technology needing to be told what to do. They have intimate knowledge of their environments and circumstances that can be brought into play in a very productive and symbiotic manner—combining what one might call indigenous or local knowledge with scientific know-how. Therefore, science needs to be more bottom-up as well as top-down as opposed to the top-down model that has been practised so far.
G’nY. As weather anomalies have increased how can agro-based systems in the region adapt to the exacerbated uncertainties?
The scientists presenting IPCC’s sixth assessment report unequivocally find that human-induced climate change is happening. Climate scientists working on extreme weather events have become better at attribution and can now tell us whether a given hurricane or a cyclone or a wildfire or heatwave was made worse because of climate change and to what extent it intensified because of it. Cyclone Amphan hit Bangladesh and West Bengal in 2020. Super cyclones of this magnitude in the past killed thousands. But with better science and an improved early warning system for cyclones, Bangladesh managed to avert significant loss of life from Amphan. An unfortunate dozen or so of fishermen who were out at sea and could not get back to land in time lost their lives. But, three million people on the land survived the cyclone by making it to the 1000 odd shelters all over the coast. Now, that is one very good indicator. However, that does not mean that the cyclone does no damage. We sent some researchers to the area a year later. They found that a large chunk of the populace that survived the cyclone was not able to go back home. Not only were their homes destroyed, but their crops were also ruined and the land had turned saline with saltwater intrusions. Many had left for the slums of Dhaka. So despite saving lives, livelihoods were lost along with loss of infrastructure and assets.
Weather anomalies are a regular feature now. Governments in this region are attempting to replenish losses to a certain degree and provide coverage, but it is not enough. There is a cyclicity to such events with climate change exacerbating it even further. Agricultural systems in South Asia are highly complex with a multiplicity of problems. There are limits to adaptation to the impacts of climate change. After a certain stage, there may have to be inevitable migration of farmers and fishers from particularly low lying coastal zones of South Asian nations who will no longer be able to practise agriculture in those regions. It is imperative that we come up with transformational strategies, transforming people’s capabilities and keeping planning people-centric as opposed to production centric. There is also a need to address the needs of young people who should not be left to become farmers and fishers, like their parents. Transforming them out of agriculture into other kinds of professions needs education and capacity building.
South Asia has reached capacity in terms of the number of people supported by simply farming. Services in the urban and rural sector, industries and several other kinds of activities can engage young people providing employment and entrepreneurship opportunities and generating income beyond farming. Transformative thinking, therefore, needs segwayed planning to get out of what we have today into a different future, hopefully, a better future where the next generation is better off than their parents. A whole of society approach is needed where a whole bunch of things in agriculture are connected to many other things beyond agriculture.
G’nY. What is the ‘whole of society’ approach to addressing climate change? Why is it important?
The whole of society approach is where everyone in society has a role and each player knows what he is supposed to be doing. In Bangladesh, for instance, adapting to climate change is a priority area of planning as the level of awareness here is very high. Everybody in Bangladesh knows about climate change—we suffer from it and we are seeing the impacts quite visibly. Even though we have a capable planning body—Bangladesh’s Planning Commission, formulating well thought out plans, there remains an implementation gap. This results from the failure to involve everybody buying into the plans and then implementing the plans in a bottom-up manner. That is what is being attempted now in the context of planning for climate change with locally-led adaptations on the premise that locals know much better about their circumstances than outsiders and are able to better understand which technology would best suit their ecosystems. The ideal is, therefore, a good mix of local knowledge and scientific knowledge harmoniously intertwined. This is not something we have done very well in the past—imposing a more top-down approach, which has had some successes in terms of productivity. However, it has failed in terms of ecosystem management and our natural systems have been quite severely affected. We cannot continue to do so and have to plan holistically in a society-centric and ecosystem-based manner.
G’nY. Do you think the exploitation of common property needs a regulatory process to curb it?
Overuse and misuse of common property is an old phenomenon world over that needs a complex set of strategies. There is a tendency to overexploit, because well, everyone has access to it. Very often, however, that may not be true—it is the rich who take over the claim to the land as their own private property, excluding the poor. It requires a regulatory top-down approach and the national and state authorities need to step in to apply the law of the land to monitor and guide its usage. Although there is a dimension of mis-governance or lack of good governance here, the regulatory basis requires an understanding of ecosystems.
G’nY. Can you throw some light on the adaptation deficit and how can we identify and address it?
One of the biggest failings of South Asia relates to overexploitation of natural resources, be it rivers, wetlands or drylands. We are now facing the destruction of many of these ecosystems to our own detriment. To me, this is an issue of urgent importance, which needs to be assisted with a variety of tools from the scientific community. There needs to be a mapping of all ecosystem characteristics—wetland, dry land, mountain ecosystem or coastal. From governmental and national legislators and from legal scholars and lawyers and judges, there needs to be an increasing recognition and judgments that aim to protect natural resources. For instance, giving a river the right to survive and to live, or giving nature the same rights as humans have, are the things that need to be put in place to recognise nature as being invaluable. We have to disincentivise that exploitation.
G’nY. What robust scientific synthesis in the revamped agrifood systems can help reduce GHG emissions from agriculture in South Asia?
There are two major opportunities for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from the agricultural sector in the South Asian region. One of them is from rice—South Asia being a rice-growing area with large inundated areas that produce methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas as compared to carbon dioxide. The other is livestock that also produces a significant amount of methane. There are new technologies on improved feed for livestock as also for growing rice with less water tillage and submergence. Bangladesh is conducting many experiments for the adoption of such improved technologies. Farmers too are quick to uptake innovations when they see a successful intervention. For instance, in the low lying coastal areas of Bangladesh which have already turned saline to some extent, new salt-tolerant varieties of rice have been introduced by scientists. This is now widely used by farmers, who readily buy the more expensive seeds simply because they are getting a good crop that is surviving the soil salinity. Effective technologies, therefore, gets picked up really quickly if it is to the advantage of the farmers. Risks are minimised and production is enhanced—it is a win-win. There is however no silver bullet that provides a ready solution for all problems. Continuous improvements are needed to go forward and up the learning curve and offer different alternatives at different times.
G’nY. What are the new investments that you propose?
We have a fine agricultural research community in South Asia that has done some remarkable work in the past. But there is now a need to embrace a new way of thinking which takes into account impacts of climate change that is now going to become more prevalent and stressful. Resilience to such stressors, therefore, needs to be accorded more importance than we ever did in the past. The second aspect is that we need to invest in people—farmers or fishers and young boys and girls. They are our biggest assets. If we can make them into resilient and adaptive people, and into thinking and innovative people then their ability to handle both challenges and opportunities are going to be enhanced. I remain hopeful that even though climate change is a big negative coming our way it is not something that has to define us or defeat us. We can rise above it by thinking differently, smartly and with great agility.