Part Two of a two part series on work in South Asia conducted by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a non-profit international research organization headquartered near Mexico City. Read Part One here.
EL BATAN, Mexico (CIMMYT) – The challenges scientists confront in ensuring maize and wheat food security in South Asia and beyond are compounded by long-term changes in average temperatures, precipitation, and climate variability, which threaten agricultural production, food security, and livelihoods.
Adaptation to climate change is necessary to ensure food security and protect livelihoods of poor farmers, as is mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.
Discoveries revealing that many agricultural practices can potentially mitigate emissions without compromising food production have proven effective.
For example, India is the third largest emitter in the world and agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of total national emissions. As part of the country’s commitment to meeting the terms of the U.N. Paris climate agreement, India has identified agriculture as a priority sector for emissions reduction in its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
Under the 2015 pact, governments agreed to restrict global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels while pursuing efforts to limit increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
At CIMMYT, scientists adopted a bottom-up approach to analyze greenhouse gas emissions using large datasets of India’s “cost of cultivation survey” and the “19th livestock census” together with soil, climate and management data for each location.
“Our results estimate that by 2030, business-as-usual emissions from the agricultural sector in India could be substantially reduced through adoption of various mitigation practices,” said Clare Stirling, senior scientist with the Sustainable Intensification Program at CIMMYT.
“We learned that the agriculture sector in India can deliver half of the agricultural mitigation target to reduce emissions intensity by a third to help meet commitments agreed in Paris.”
Additionally, scientists found that about 80 percent of this mitigation potential could be achieved through cost-saving measures.
Through efficient fertilizer use, zero-tillage, and rice-water management, more than 50 percent mitigation potential could be reached, said Stirling who has also explored the sociological aspects of climate smart agriculture.
In a recent research paper on fertilizer use and gender, Stirling argued that compiling gender-inclusive data could help scientists understand how to help smallholder farmers improve nitrogen fertilizer application practices.
In developing countries, women make up about 43 percent of the agricultural labor force, but in comparison to men, they have access to only a fraction of the land, credit, inputs—such as improved seeds and fertilizers, agricultural training and information.
Smallholder maize and wheat farmers need to use inorganic nitrogen fertilizer in combination with good agronomic practices to produce crops, but nitrogen can be misapplied.
In the big picture, fertilizer overuse can be harmful to plants and soil, contaminate drinking water, and kill off fish species. Additionally, nitrogen fertilizer produces nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, which contributes to climate change. Gender-smart fertilizer use can help improve livelihoods, according to research.
“Establishing more balanced and efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer will significantly improve gender and social equity outcomes for women and children, particularly in relation to health,” Stirling says.
Women often use less fertilizer due to unequal access. They may also forgo food to ensure that children and other family members eat nutritious food, putting their own health at risk.
Other problems posed by fertilizer use include a negative effect on the death rate of babies of poor rural women because mothers work in rice paddy fields and absorb fertilizer-derived toxins.
New scientific research into “layering” climate smart agriculture techniques conducted by CIMMYT scientists shows promise, demonstrating the potential for crop adaptability to a variable climate as well as climate change while also increasing farmer incomes.
“Adaptation to climate change is not an option anymore,” Jat says, adding that the key to future food security is to use climate smart agricultural technologies that promote sustainable intensification and adapt to emerging climatic variability.
CIMMYT scientists are also leveraging climate information to help farmers improve how they make decisions on crop management. The Climate Services for Resilient Development (CSRD), an international partnership funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), uses data to connect climate and environmental science, generate useful information, decision tools, and services to help streamline agricultural practices
“Working with the Bangladesh Meteorological Department and Department of Agricultural Extension, we are working to bring improved extended- and seasonal-range forecasts to farmers,” Krupnik adds. “After translating this information into easy to understand formats, farmers are empowered to make smarter decisions on what crop and variety to plant, and when and how to manage irrigation, pests, and diseases depending on historical and forecasted climate data. Through the USAID supported CSRD initiative, we are bringing climate information and science to farmers’ fields to increase the resilience of smallholder farming systems.”
“Climate smart agriculture is really about the combination of practices, technologies, and programs,” says Stirling. “We see potential for greater overall farmer wealth amid what at times can seem like insurmountable environmental challenges.”