Climate change: red alert or red herring?

Climate experts have been drawing a doomsday scenario with threats of natural disasters such as droughts, floods, water wars and other calamities that can be blamed on global warming. The hoopla has led agricultural researchers to ponder on impending food shortages, and therefore a laborious research has begun to produce climate-proof crops that can defy extreme heat or cold.

While researchers and experts have realised the need for change in production ways, the gravity of the situation has not sunk in with government departments.

“Recent disasters have, jolted their (officials’) minds but this area needs much more serious efforts particularly in climate proofing rather than just waiting for damages to happen and then take recourse. More political commitment, investment in relevant institutions, robust strategies and effective implementation and follow-up are needed” said Naseer Memon, a climate change expert.

According to Iftikhar Ahmad, chairman of Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), increased preparedness for climate-related risk management through a multi-disciplinary approach is the need of the hour.

Time is indeed a critical factor. The impact of extreme weather patterns and scarcity of water will be felt on food production, in the next ten years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“This includes development of improved crop varieties with resistance to emerging biotic and a-biotic stresses, introduction of new crop species, investment in new irrigation systems, and use of eco-friendly management options (for example, organic agriculture, bio-pesticides, bio-herbicides),” Ahmad of PARC explained.

However, international agricultural economist Dr Zafar Altaf has dismissed the hype surrounding climate change.

“As plants have an inherent ability to fight drought and rain, there is little need to tamper with nature or fight climate change,” he told Dawn.com.

Meanwhile, several Pakistani agricultural experts have been busy searching for methods that could help climate-proof crops. There have been talks of setting up of national seed banks for such varieties that can withstand extreme events and even grow crops that produce more food, have more nutrients and grow on the same amount of land, with less water.

Despite the interest being shown by his compatriots, Altaf was adamant that climate-proofing is a ‘red herring’ by the west.

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According to Altaf, the West’s cropping pattern, which he terms ‘meaningless,’ was inherited as a colonial legacy and is being promoted by its own interests.

“Pakistan will not run out of food, so there is no need for climate-proof crops.”

Underlining the need for innovative farming methods, he added, “new ways require imagination and specialists who are multi-disciplinarian; improved marketing of the produce and achieving food security.”

This, however, cannot be achieved without hiccups. “The pace at which climate changes will occur, needs to be at par with the change in mentality in the agriculture sector,” Altaf said.
“There is an urgent need to raise the educational standards drastically.”

In addition, the farmer has to be inducted in that development paradigm shift. “The best option is to make the farmer a party to decision making,” he said.

The same notion was endorsed by PARC chairman Iftikhar Ahmad, who called for improved climate-related decision-making should be at the farms.
“Farmers need to gain a better understanding of the climate factors that affect crop yield in their environment”.

This, he insisted, would allow decision makers to identify possible management options based on climate information or seasonal forecasts. “That will not only enhance the resilience in various cropping systems but also sustain the farm productivity.”

The threat is that if farmers are not taken along, the implication of climate change on crop yields may lead to the risk of hunger, which could be disastrous as Pakistan is already facing acute malnourishment.

According to Pakistan’s National Nutrition Survey 2011, 57 per cent of the country’s total population of 184 million is facing food insecurity.

The finding of the national survey (carried out by the ministry of health’s Nutrition Wing in collaboration with the Aga Khan University) states that among that 57 per cent, half the women and children were found to be malnourished.

Dr Zulfikar Bhutta, the lead investigator of the nutrition report, believes “increased poverty levels, illiteracy, lack of awareness regarding the right kind of food to take, and a government distracted by non-issues” has led to the unacceptable high levels of malnourishment.

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“I find it extremely alarming that we will have a generation of unhealthy children who will grow up to be unhealthy adults.”

Health experts, including Bhutta have long been raising awareness regarding Vitamin A, zinc and Vitamin D deficiency.

While climate change does contribute to the malnourishment crisis, it is only one of the known risk factors that may lead to food insecurity.

“In addition to introducing farmer-friendly policies (for example, those related to market availability and stability), timely availability of inputs (seeds, fertilizers, irrigation water) needs to be ensured to minimise the impacts of climate change” Iftikhar Ahmad said.

According to Altaf, input costs can be reduced by using organic fertilisers as opposed to chemical fertiliser, which is 20 times more expensive. “But the West and the vested interests in this country would not allow such a move,” he said.

He reiterated the need to make the locally produced food easily available and affordable.

“Pakistan can make it on its own provided the marketing is made more relevant and fair.”

“At the moment the physical distance between the consumer and the producer is immense.”

When Pakistan and India were partitioned (in 1947), the number agriculture markets in Punjab was 650, which has now come down to 119.

“Consumers are suffering because of policy indifference. The small farmer can become viable if he does have the facility to sell in markets closer home.”

Altaf emphasized that Pakistan’s problems were not with nature but with humans who do not understand the implications of donor-driven policies.

He went on to add that the assistance provided by international donor agencies does not help.

“They have allowed misallocation of resources because they cannot afford failures. They go to the most likely areas where the projects can be a success – the irrigated areas of Sindh and Punjab provinces.”

“As a result, farmers based in marginal areas and fragile areas are excluded from the developmental process. These marginal areas can produce much more from their indigenous sources. It is the absence of relevant policies that is making life risky.”

Source: Dawn.com

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