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Food For Thought

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Global warming and climate change may worry people elsewhere, but not in India. Indian agriculture minister Sharad Pawar recently told Parliament that climate change has not had any impact on farming. In the past five years, he said, production of wheat, rice, sugarcane and cotton "has not dropped, but increased". He went on to claim that "except for Nigeria, no negative impact of global warming has been reported globally so far". Despite the rider "so far", his assertion ignores facts. Scientific studies have linked some of the recent extreme weather patterns to global warming. By intensifying the cycle of evaporation and precipitation over the ocean, rising temperature has introduced increased volatility and extreme weather. In 2008-2009, drought in Australia, heat wave in Europe and Russia and floods in the US drove up world food prices and caused riots in some countries.

The minister is right, though, about the more recent happy news. Thanks to good monsoons, India has had bumper crops and its principal worry now is to find enough dry storage for its grain. But lest officials get smug about there being "no negative impact" of climate change, they would do well to consider a mass of scientific studies pointing to the likely intensification of extreme weather and their impact on food production.

Take the ICRIER report, Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture and Food Security. It notes that the country's annual wheat output could plunge by 6 million tonne with every 1°C rise in temperature. Even rice, which is less vulnerable, showed an average of 10 per cent decline in yield with every 1-4°C rise in temperature. Meteorologists foresee average temperatures in north India rising between 3°C and 5°C by the end of the century. "By 2050, about half of India's prime wheat production area could get heat-stressed with the cultivation window getting shorter, affecting productivity," the report concludes. The challenge posed by the warming trend appears more daunting in view of the projected need to double foodgrain production — from the current 2 billion to 4 billion tonne annually.

The window of opportunity provided by the recent bountiful harvest needs to be used to prepare for the vagaries of climate and take measures to adapt to a warming, wetter world. The challenge is, however, becoming more complex as scientists discover that far from being a linear progression, the warming could produce great climate shifts in unpredictable ways. Timothy Lenton, a British climate scientist, has been studying Greenland's ice-core records to understand how the last drastic climate change came about. Climate records found in the 15,000-year-old ice does not show any evidence of a meteorite hit or volcanic activity that could have caused the sudden drop in temperature producing the mini-ice age. He concludes that the climate system, which had been changing slowly due to a variety of factors, reached a tipping point bringing about sudden drastic change.

Turning to the present, Lenton has identified nine weather systems which, though regional in scope, could trigger a non-linear global chain reaction bringing rapid transition from one state to another.

One of these tipping points lies in the Indian Ocean, the birth place of the monsoon. The soot (aerosol) arising from household fires, factories and automobiles drifts out over the Indian Ocean blocks heating of the ocean thus delaying the monsoon. The increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere coming from global pollution has the opposite effect of intensifying monsoon. Lenton posits that a minor shift in this balance between CO2 and brown haze could rapidly flip the pattern — from drought to torrential downpour and floods. Monsoons could grow in intensity and also be infrequent. Lenton raises the possibility that the monsoons could shut down entirely with catastrophic consequences. The other eight systems — from the Arctic sea ice to the Amazon forest — could similarly flip the world's weather dynamics. All the tipping points are affected by human-induced warming that the developed and industrialising nations – old polluters and new — seem unable to agree on how to control.

While the fruitless negotiations over reducing global warming continue at the Rio Earth Summit, priority should be given to adapting agriculture to the rising threat. Preparing for a softer landing is wiser than behaving like the man who, falling from a skyscraper, repeats to himself, "So far so good… so far so good."

The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal

Online boundtogether(dot)bw(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 18-06-2012)