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Achieving food security by adapting agriculture to climate change

Achieving food security in India with 17.7 per cent of the world’s population but only 2.4 per cent of its land is a daunting task. Despite an estimated food production of 314 million metric tons in 2021-2022, the country still faces the challenge of feeding its undernourished population of 190 million, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (2020)

To meet the rising demand for food from a growing population and increased income, India will need to nearly double its food production by 2050. With limited land resources, increasing crop yields is crucial, but this goal is made increasingly difficult by the effects of climate change. The Centre for Science and Environment reported that India experienced extreme weather events on 88 per cent of the first 243 days of 2022, resulting in damage to over 1.8 million hectares of cropland4.

Climate change is having a profound impact on the three pillars of agricultural productivity: temperature, water, and land/soil.

Global warming is causing temperatures to rise all over the world, with India seeing an average temperature increase of more than 0.6°C over the past 100 years. This trend is expected to continue, with predictions of a 1-2.5°C increase by 2030. The effects of the temperature changes on agriculture are significant, particularly during the reproductive and grain-filling stages of crop growth.

Rising temperatures have already impacted yields of crops such as wheat and rice in some parts of India. This rise in temperature is also leading to changes in suitable crop growth areas, crop duration, and an increase in pests and weeds, as well as changes in photosynthesis and respiration rates. Predictive models suggest that future rises in day and night temperatures could result in abrupt changes in agricultural productivity1.

India only has 4 per cent of the world’s freshwater resources to meet the needs of its domestic and agricultural sector, which includes feeding one fifth of the world’s population and producing the world’s largest quantities of wheat, rice, pulses, cotton, and spices. Agriculture in India is largely dependent on monsoon rainfall for water, with nearly two-thirds of the country’s farmed land relying on rain and lacking substantial irrigation. The spatial and temporal distribution of precipitation is therefore critical to agricultural productivity.

Climate change is already affecting water security for agriculture in India. Analysis of data from the Indian Meteorological Department shows that extreme precipitation events and their variability have increased significantly over the past decade. This trend is expected to continue, with the frequency of extreme precipitation events predicted to increase until the 2060s and beyond. For agriculture that relies heavily on monsoons, this could result in devastating droughts, floods, and hailstorms, leading to significant losses in agricultural production.

Farmers toil in the fields. Life today has become harder for them thanks to unpredictable rainfall and other impacts of climate change.

Despite India’s high agricultural output, crop yields in the country are often lower than in other developing and developed nations, such as China, Brazil, and the United States. This can be attributed to the low productivity of soils, which have been farmed for thousands of years and are now depleted of nutrients due to modern practices that have left the lands infertile.

Climate change affects soil through changes in water and temperature patterns. Water availability and temperature changes can lead to accelerated nutrient mineralisation, reduced efficiency of fertiliser use, faster evaporation from soils, changes to the soil microbiome, reduced soil organic carbon content, increased soil erosion, and desertification. These impacts of climate change on water and temperature result in a loss of soil fertility, threatening future food security.

Securing agricultural productivity, food security
The future of Indian agriculture is at risk due to the negative impact of climate change on soil, water, and temperature. To secure agricultural productivity and food security in India, there is a need for greater focus on climate-resilient agricultural (CRA) practices. These practices aim to: (1) enhance agricultural productivity and income sustainably to meet national food security and development targets, (2) improve the resilience and adaptability of agricultural systems to the effects of climate change, and (3) reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration to limit further contribution to the problem of climate change.

To ensure the long-term success of climate-resilient agricultural practices, it is essential to involve and empower rural communities in their implementation. This is why the Indian Government has picked up the concept of ‘climate-resilient villages’, which aims to mobilise and equip rural communities to effectively manage and respond to the impacts of climate change on agriculture. One of the core components of the programme is the use of nature-based solutions (NbS) for natural resource management. NbS are based on the principles of CRA and aim to maximize the ability of nature to provide ecosystem services that address issues such as climate change and food security. These solutions can include biochar use, nutrient management, crop rotation, reduced tillage/no-tillage, reforestation, and more.

While NbS offer long-term sustainability and financial benefits, the upfront costs and risks can make them inaccessible to small and marginal farmers, who make up the majority of farmers in India. Therefore, investment from policymakers, NGOs, and corporations is critical to make NbS a viable solution for sustainable agriculture and national food security. Investing in NbS to create a resilient agriculture system is crucial to gaining food security in India, for now and for the future.