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Agriculture: Food security through climate-smart agriculture

Climate change manifests itself through rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. It has enhanced the production risk of agricultural farming, a business which has already been inherently risky for farmers due to high dependency on favourable weather conditions and volatile prices of crops in the market.

Even if we put aside the megaflood of 2022, Pakistan’s farmers already feel the full brunt of climate change. For instance, the extraordinary heat wave in March 2022 reduced wheat yield significantly because grains could not reach their full size due to early higher temperatures in the range of 40–42 Celsius.

Likewise, this heat wave also impacted the flowering of mango trees, which in turn decreased mango production in 2022. Negative effects of climate change can be seen in 2023 as well, where severe frost in January has adversely affected the potato crop in Punjab’s major potato-growing districts. As a consequence of such production decrease, Pakistan’s current food security situation is worsening, and it is likely to be aggravated further in the future.

To decrease the adverse effects of climate change on agriculture, international development agencies are pursuing an integrated approach called climate-smart agriculture (CSA), which is primarily comprised of three components; increasing agricultural productivity, building resilience to climate change (adaptation), and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change (mitigation).

With one of the lowest crop-water productivity in the region, two to five times more water is used to get the same amount of produce

In Pakistan, a clear consensus does exist amongst relevant stakeholders for making necessary changes to our agriculture system and improving the management of natural resources, as outlined by CSA. Considering the current vulnerability of our agricultural system to climate change, here are some broad areas for intervention, which are now becoming increasingly crucial for farmers as well as the country’s food security.

The biggest challenge being faced by our agriculture sector is low crop productivity. With the exception of a few, yields of our most crops remain below the world’s averages. Due to rising temperatures, winters are getting shorter in Pakistan, which is affecting our winter crops, including wheat, the largest staple food in the country. Similarly, higher temperatures and irregular rains, especially at pollination and maturity stages, are adversely affecting the yields of Kharif crops.

Such variability in climate necessitates the availability of climate-resilient crop varieties that must be high-yielding, short-duration, and heat tolerant. Along with this, they must be able to tolerate water stress and waterlogged conditions. Without such varieties, nothing concrete can be achieved to cope with the menace of climate change.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s public sector research centres have failed to meet the nation’s expectations due to inadequate agricultural research budgets and poor human and institutional capacity. As a result, imported seeds have captured a good market share in Pakistan, which especially includes hybrid seeds of maize, rice, canola, sunflower, vegetables, and other crops.

Relying on intensive research, multinational companies have continuously introduced improved crop varieties of these crops to cope with climate variations. However, such ever-increasing dependency on imported seed is not a long-term and sustainable solution for a country like Pakistan, which has a large agriculture sector.

Therefore, what the country desperately needs is an enabling policy environment coupled with the right incentives for the private sector that can boost in-country seed production at a large scale. Only local production can enhance the provision of affordable quality seed to smallholders.

Water is a critical agricultural input and plays a central role in food security. Pakistan has one of the lowest crop-water productivity in the region. We use two to five times more water compared to other countries to get the same production. However, water availability is becoming increasingly uncertain in the country due to an increase in extreme weather events like dry spells (droughts) and heavy rainfall.

All of this necessitates increasing water management through various resource conservation technologies (RCTs), improving on-farm irrigation practices, and introducing water-smart farming. The greater usage of suitable RCTs like precision land levelling, raised bed planting, and various types of high-efficiency irrigation solutions can conserve a great deal of water and, in turn, the energy required to pump groundwater. Such energy saving would also reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

Another related issue is the drainage of excess rainwater from fields caused by greater intensity and frequency of precipitation — another manifestation of climate change. The problem of standing water is increasing, especially in low-lying fields, and it has a very damaging effect on those crops that can’t tolerate waterlogged conditions. It is imperative to improve the drainage of rainwater from fields and its storage for subsequent usage.

In Pakistan, a substantial amount of agricultural produce is already lost to crop pests and diseases during the production phase. Climate change is impacting the biology and outbreak potential of crop pests, which may further increase crop loss. Therefore, to ensure food security, it is high time to introduce climate-smart pest management aimed at reducing pest-induced crop losses, but with a lesser application of pesticides.

The manufacturing and application of chemical fertilisers also produce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, ammonia, and nitrous oxide. In Pakistan, urea (nitrogenous fertiliser) is the most widely used fertiliser. Crops hardly take up 50 per cent of applied nitrogen, while the remaining runs off into waterways or gets broken down in the soil, releasing nitrous oxide. Hence, an increase in fertiliser use efficiency would not only mitigate climate change but also decrease fertiliser costs for farmers, which is on the rise.

In conclusion, Pakistan needs a productivity-centric and resilience-focused CSA that could increase its agricultural production while decreasing the agriculture sector’s vulnerability to climate change, thereby ensuring food security in the country.

However, in view of the country’s economic and financial problems, the real challenge is to identify, rank (prioritise), and then execute the most relevant interventions, which must be cost-effective and sustainable, with a higher impact.

Khalid Wattoo is a farmer and a development professional Sara Mehmood is a researcher in forestry and environmental sciences

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 30th, 2023

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