Challenges to agriculture | Sunday Observer
In the face of climate, health and food security changes

Challenges to agriculture

13 September, 2020

Adominant agrarian economy has existed in Sri Lanka since ancient times and has played a significant role in national food security, employment among rural people, village household economy, social and cultural linkages among farmers and landscape health in farming lands.

However, some recent risk factors, such as changing weather patterns have emerged in the agriculture sector during the past few decades and the changing weather patterns, commonly known as climate change, have been ranked first among the risks. This reveals a prompt need for drawing a national level attention to address local issues in agriculture originating from global climate change. In the past few years, several additional risk factors in human health, such as Covid-19 virus and crop damages by insect pest, such as fall armyworm attack have been identified in food crop sector. All above factors have collectively aggravated the problems related to uncertainty in local food production.

Global climate change will have significant long lasting effects on local production and importation of food items. It is a timely need to initiate a gradual shift from conventional farming to climate smart agriculture. This shift may face many big challenges, including education, agronomic, financial and administrative.

In contrast, the impact of health issues and pest outbreaks on food security directly and indirectly may be short lasting. Risk-sensitive agriculture provides the way for addressing farmer health and pest outbreak related problems. Hence, it is suggested to develop short term strategies in the form of risk-sensitive agriculture to address case by case issues in farmer health and crop damages by pest and long term strategies as climate smart agriculture for farming systems to stabilise local food production in the country.

Major risks

A dominant agrarian economy has existed in Sri Lanka since ancient times and thereby it has played a significant role in ensuring national food security, creating employment particularly for rural people, mitigating household economic stresses in village communities, strengthening social and cultural linkages among farmers and maintaining landscape health in agricultural ecosystems.

However, according to recent reviews in the country, some risk factors have emerged in the agriculture sector during the past few decades which include changing weather patterns, increasing reluctance of the youth to engage in agriculture resulting in labour shortages, fragmentation of land holdings with associated issues and continuing land degradation.

Weather patterns

Changing weather patterns, commonly known as climate change, have been ranked first among the risks. This reveals a prompt need for drawing a national level attention to address local issues in agriculture originating from global climate change. It has been recognised as a long lasting environmental concern in the world.

In this context, this country has been a negligible contributor to global climate change. However, it is highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of this issue. The major adverse impacts related to climate change include an increase in frequency and intensity of disasters, such as droughts, floods and landslides, increased variability and unpredictability of rainfall resulting in frequent crop failures particularly in rain-fed farming systems, an increase in atmospheric temperature creating multiple adverse environmental effects and an impending rise in sea level impacting land related issues in coastal, agricultural and other ecosystems.

In the past few years, several additional risk factors have been identified related to farmers’ health and food security. The health issues include: chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) particularly in farming communities in the dry zone areas, seasonal occurrence of dengue particularly among householders in the wet zone areas, the spreading risk of a bacterial disease called rat fever (Leptospirosis) among farmers during the accelerated rehabilitation of abandoned paddy lands particularly at lower elevations in the wet zone areas and most recently the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus.

In addition, food security has been impacted by the increasing spread of fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) insect pest problems particularly in maize cultivation systems during 2019/20 Maha season. These recently emerging risks highlight the growing urgent need to develop strategies to mitigate their adverse effects on local agriculture.

This article will discuss the need for introducing a climate smart system of agriculture as an alternative kept ready for operation whenever the conventional farming systems fail due to the various impacts of climate change.

It will explain how to sustain local agriculture at a satisfactory level under the challenging situations created by changing climatic conditions. It will also discuss the need for introducing risk-sensitive agriculture for addressing health and pest outbreak related problems. The goals of this discussion are to help ensure national food security in a sustainable manner. Agriculture includes raising food crops and rearing food animals, but both sectors have not been considered as a consolidated political subject in the country.

Climate smart agriculture

This article will discuss some of the adverse changes that have emerged, new challenges based on the changes and possible strategies for a speedy recovery from these adversities considering examples from crop husbandry, the dominant agriculture sector.

Since ancient times in the country, the three systems of farming which provided food mainly for domestic consumption, included eco-farming in home gardens, slash and burn seasonal cropping in rain-fed uplands locally known as chena cultivation and rice farming in paddy lands. Each of these farming systems received environmentally friendly inputs during the crop production process.

Science based inputs

Since the 1950s, science based inputs including fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides, new farming technologies and improved management practices have been applied to these conventional farming sectors at an increasing scale to enhance crop yields and thereby ensure national food security.

As a result, near self-sufficiency has been achieved with respect to the production of many major food crops. However, the global climate change during the past few decades has adversely affected local crop production. It has highlighted the need for these farming systems to adopt appropriate climate smart land and crop management strategies and practices.

According to literature, climate change can be described briefly as a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.

Based on climate related information generated locally before the occurrence of global climate change, this country was divided into three climatic regions: wet, intermediate (semi dry and semi wet areas) and dry zones depending on the total annual rainfall.

The wet zone is the area which receives mean annual rainfall of above 2,500 mm.

The intermediate zone receives a mean annual rainfall of 1,750 – 2,500 mm. In contrast, the mean annual rainfall of the dry zone remains below 1,750 mm. The temporal variation of the rainfall in the country shows two distinct rainfall patterns: bi-modal and uni-modal distributions. Most areas dominated by food crop agriculture show a bimodal pattern.

The bimodal distribution pattern shows two rainy periods and two dry spells within a year. One dry spell falls during late January to early March, while the other occurs during late July to early September.

In contrast, late September to early January referred to as the wet period of the Maha season and late March to early July referred to as the wet period of the Yala season.

Over the past few decades, this distinct annual rainfall pattern has changed significantly possibly due to the adverse effects of global climate change.

Conventional practices

For example, an increase in extreme events in annual rainfall has created difficulties for the conventional practices of farming in rain-fed as well as modern irrigated agriculture. In addition to the changing rainfall pattern, according to literature, global surface temperature has increased by more than 1.5 oC (relatively to 1850 – 1900) for most agricultural regions in the world. This has adversely affected temperature sensitive crops grown locally.

Higher temperature can lead to increased rates of glacier melt particularly in the polar climate regions and thereby a rise in sea water level affecting all countries having a coastal belt. According to recent assessments in some other countries, every 100 GT per year of ice loss contributes to an estimated 0.28 mm/year of global mean sea level rise.

It poses a threat to agricultural and other lands in the coastal areas. All of these changes in the global climate collectively reveal the need of introducing a climate smart system of agriculture for farming systems in affected countries.

According to literature, climate smart agriculture can be described briefly as agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, enhances adaptation to climate change and reduces greenhouse gas emission, while enhancing achievements in national food security and development goals. In this regard, adaptations to climate change and mitigation of greenhouse gas emission have been major topics lacking awareness among the majority of the people.

Adaptation to climate change can be described briefly as adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities. Adopting new climate adaptation strategies and practices can have significant impacts on addressing local climate change effects in areas, such as biodiversity conservation, water resources use, agriculture productivity, human health and coastal resources management. In agriculture, adaptation strategies and practices can help build up the resilience in farming to unexpected adverse changes in local climate particularly in rain-fed systems.

Mitigation strategies can be described briefly as anthropogenic interventions to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases. The major greenhouse gases emitted from farming systems include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Implementation of mitigation strategies in agriculture helps control global warming.

However, as discussed above, this country is a negligible contributor of greenhouse gas emission from the agriculture sector. Hence, making a serious effort at the local country level combined with an effective lobbying at global scale will help create increased pressure on the major greenhouse gas emitters.

Adoption of mitigation strategies and practices has been more effective in management fields, such as energy resources use, modern industries, fossil fuel energy based transport services and urban waste management. In case of local agriculture, more attention should be focused on adaptation strategies and practices for sustainable solutions for present long lasting issues of production.

In addition, identification of support services to build resilience to climate change is another important aspect to be considered in the establishment of climate smart systems for local agriculture. Climate smart agriculture is not only an effective operational alternative for application only when conventional farming fails, but could also be implemented gradually now to ensure agriculture performs at a satisfactory level particularly under current climatic adversity.

To be continued