While the Scientific American termed India’s 2019 monsoon floods as the world’s deadliest disaster that year, a related observation is both 2019 and 2020 saw above-average monsoon rains with erratic intensity, i.e. dry spells in July followed by an absolute deluge in August and September.
India last saw such heavy downpour in 1994 and 1976, almost twenty years apart; but this time it struck in successive years. And this was after a drought in 2018.
Climate change is undoubtedly accelerating India’s monsoon mayhem; and it is no wonder Indian activists like Licypriya Kangujam are following Sweden’s Greta Thunberg to red-flag the climate emergency!
The excessive and erratic monsoons were most destructive on the agriculture sector. Both years saw floods damage the standing crops. Excess rains during the crops’ growth stage, trimmed their size at places. Temperature variation increased pest attacks, destroying output. And the lack of storage and drying facilities rotted the perishable harvest that had high moisture content.
Both years saw Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, etc. and crops like soybean, onion, urad, sugarcane, potato, cotton, rice, tur and groundnut suffer. While acreage has risen in India, excessive and erratic rains ruined 32 lakh hectares of farmland in 2020, and an even greater area in 2019.
Research shows loss in output increases farmer suicides during flood situations. With 42 percent of India’s workforce engaged in agriculture (equal to Pakistan’s total population), the social impact is more dire. As it is, India’s population is set to cross 1.5 billion by 2036 while its farm sector still lags Asian peers in productivity. And with 30 percent of its farmland risking degradation, food security remains a challenge.
It is imperative to mainstream innovative technologies and processes in India that can help farm output, farmers’ livelihood and food security despite erratic and excessive rains, a climate trend that may only reoccur in future!
The FAO’s 2020 World Food Day stressed innovation-based changes for climate-resilient agriculture, implying this is a focus-area for global stakeholders. Some innovative technologies and processes are already demonstrating value, placing them well to be scaled up and replicated. They pertain to different aspects of the farming chain, but all of them help tackle climate threats.
UPL, an Indian agrochemical company, has developed Zeba. It is a starch-based super-absorbent soil additive that acts as a water sponge to reduce the dependence on irrigation or rains. In regions afflicted by low groundwater or droughts owing to climate risks, this can help water conservation by retaining the moisture in the soil. Moreover, the reduced dependance on water tankers implies lower carbon emissions from the trucks, another element of climate risk. On water, Israel’s Tal-Ya Water Technologies has patented a polypropylene-based recyclable plastic plate that covers the root of the crop. It can save water usage by ~50% by optimally using rainwater and dew. Apart from water-use efficiency, this can also reduce the need for fertilizers and weedicides to some extent.
On storage, noted Israeli food-technologist Shlomo Navarro has invented GrainPro Cocoons. It is a light weight, low-cost packaging made of PE material to store grains, keeping them free from moisture and pests - twin-challenges that accelerate during excess and erratic rains. The cocoons support fumigation and do not require cold storage which most developing countries anyway lack. It is now being used in over 100 countries, including across Asia and Africa.
Kheyti Tech’s greenhouse-in-a-box protects farmer incomes and output against climate risks in Telangana. The portable greenhouse is installed in a portion of the field and enables drip-irrigation and protection from pests. While climate risks may affect the exposed field, the patch in the greenhouse remains protected and ensures a basic income for the farmer to reduce livelihood risks.
In planting, Siddhi Vinayak Agri Processing technology involves suspending the young tubers in the air and spraying the roots with a mist of water and nutrients. Farmer testimonials show its SV2 seed variety’s tubers not only saw higher productivity, but its potato farmers in Maharashtra saw minimal rotting and blight to their crops during the excessive rains, thus reducing rain-induced yield damage from almost 80-90% in the traditional tubers to only 10-15 percent in the SV2 tubers.
Gauging weather patterns cannot be far behind when it comes to climate risks. Ignitia’s AI-based solution, IskaWeather, supports climate-smart agriculture for smallholder farmers in West Africa with regular weather forecasts via SMS. Unlike smartphone apps, SMS can be seen even in the older feature phones, since most smallholders in developing countries do not yet use smartphones.
At the end, agriculture is impacted by water availability, water quality, soil fertility, soil-borne diseases, temperature fluctuation, pest incidences, salinity, etc., and each of these factors is in turn impacted by climate change. Mainstreaming innovative processes and technologies to make agriculture climate-resilient is no longer a choice, but now a necessity for sustaining our farmers and society. The first movers who adopt and replicate such solutions and take them to scale will weather the climate risks better.
Hemant Gaur is the Managing Director, Siddhivinayak Agri Processing and Mr. Sourajit Aiyer is Consultant, South Asia Fast Track Sustainability Communications.