- Beyond certain climate ‘tipping points’, some food systems will not be able to continue existing in their current forms.
- ‘Transformative adaptation’ – defined as promoting long-term resilience by changing the fundamental attributes of a system in response to actual or expected climate change and its effects – could be part of the answer to this crisis.
- Despite promising examples in which wealthier farmers have been able to adopt transformative practices on their own, such examples are scattered. The poorer, more vulnerable farmers lack access to resources such as capital, credit, and information required to make such fundamental changes, write researchers from WRI-India in this commentary.
- The views in this commentary are that of the authors.
The impact of climate change on India’s food systems has been long evident, with about 194 million people struggling for food and nutritional security today. Between 2017 and 2019, 18 million hectares of crop was lost to floods and 40% of food was lost or wasted post-harvest. More recently, Covid-19 has exacerbated hunger and livelihood challenges in the country. In 2020, India performed poorly by ranking 94th out of 107 countries on the Global Hunger Index, with child nourishment falling rapidly in the last 20 years.
Going forward, tackling the twin challenges of climate change and food insecurity will require bold, innovative approaches. Beyond certain climate ‘tipping points’, some food systems will not be able to continue existing in their current forms. These include hotspots where severe impacts of climate change — including floods, droughts and temperature extremes — are already occurring, or are projected for the future. Food systems in these hotspots will need to be fundamentally transformed to build resilience against climate change.
‘Transformative adaptation’ — defined as promoting long-term resilience by changing the fundamental attributes of a system in response to actual or expected climate change and its effects — could be part of the answer to this crisis. Transformation contrasts with incremental adaptation, the currently prevalent practice of trying to maintain existing food systems through less dramatic measures like more drought-tolerant varieties of familiar crops and more efficient water management.
Transformation is happening — but not for all farmers
A recently released report from the World Resources Institute highlights three types of actions that can signal when transformative adaptation in agriculture is occurring, as well as examples of such changes in India.
The first action is the relocation of entire crop and livestock systems to different locations. In Himachal Pradesh, increasing winter temperatures have contributed to a decrease in apple production. Where local land tenure arrangements would allow, farmers have shifted apple production to higher altitudes with more suitable temperatures. In lower altitudes, they are intercropping with vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, peas, broccoli, kiwis, and pomegranates. In Maharashtra, farmers in drought-prone regions have shifted to pomegranates from grapes due to falling ground water levels, along with increasing input costs.
The second type is to align crop and livestock production to changing ecosystems and natural resources. In south Gujarat, many farmers have shifted to aquaculture. They used to grow paddy and other crops, saltwater ingress in fertile soil made it impossible for them to continue.
The third action is to adopt new technologies that change the existing agricultural production in significant ways. For example, use of regular and storm-resistant greenhouses in India is on the rise. These structures reduce crop losses that would normally occur due to water scarcity or extreme rainfall events. They may also make it possible for farmers to produce new types of crops.
Despite these promising examples in which wealthier farmers have been able to adopt transformative practices on their own, such examples are scattered. The poorer, more vulnerable farmers lack access to resources such as capital, credit, and information required to make such fundamental changes.
Policy and institutional support crucial for transformative adaptation
For transformative adaptation to be adopted efficiently on a larger scale, across different geographies and by vulnerable communities, policy and institutional support is a must. Incorporating longer-term planning based on climate risks, in consultation with local communities, can help identify instances where transformative adaptation is needed. In addition to credit, technology, resilient seeds and livestock, scaling transformative adaptation may also require transforming land tenure, labour, finance, and insurance availability.
Governments need better information and analyses to identify tipping points and vulnerable hotspots so they can plan for transformative adaptation. Globally, influential organizations like the Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) and Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres (CGIAR) can pioneer research to build evidence and knowledge to support such efforts.
Towards a cultural shift
Scaling up transformative adaptation will require complementary efforts to shift cultural and behavioural preferences to encourage uptake and create market demand for the new crops. The ‘Millet Mission’ in India is an example. The revival of the hardy, drought-resistant crop, which is a better fit for increasingly water-stressed regions, was promoted among farmers, encouraging a shift away from water-intensive paddy and maize, across states in India. This was accompanied by inclusion of millet in the Public Distribution System (PDS), and awareness drives to change consumer dietary patterns through millet recipe books in local languages and supporting local centres to create millet-based products.
Fundamental shifts away from the status-quo are always difficult to achieve, both because of resistance to change and political sensitivities, and lack of access to the essential resources. It is politically convenient to prioritize actions that provide easy solutions for the short-term, rather than decades into the future. However, tackling climate change will require trading present benefits for future gains, and making long term investments for more resilient development.
Parvathi Preethan works with Climate Resilience Practice program and Namrata Ginoya with Energy program at World Resources Institute India. Views are personal.
Banner image: A farmer harvests the season’s cauliflower crop near Kullu town, Himachal Pradesh, an area that used to be a major producer of high-value apples. Photo by NeilPalmer for CIAT/Flickr.