Coping with climate change to secure food and livelihoods. by Suman Sahai

SID Forum Highlights for foodFirst

Can the world be fed in a sustainable way? Food production has increased over the last 30 years, yet one billion people are suffering from hunger worldwide according to the United Nations. In order to feed the world's population, global agriculture will have to double its food production by 2050. However hunger is not a problem of  production merely: transport and distribution of food, land's entitlements, access to water and other natural resources, vulnerability of small farmers and exclusion from the market; impact of global warming and climate change, especially for developing countries in the tropics...these are some of the most compelling issues that need urgent solutions. Moreover, holding on current practices of production and distribution, can double the environmental harm of agriculture. 

These issues have been discussed during the food and sustainability conference, held on May 8th (at Floriade in Venlo, The Netherlands), co-organised by the foodFIRST coalition and the WorldConnectors Round Table

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In order to continue the foodFIRST debate  on food and sustainability and to better understand the issues involved, the SID Forum has invited Suman Sahai - a scientist and chairperson of the Indian Ngo, the 'Gene Campaign' - to explain the impact of climate change on food and livelihoods in developing countries.

by Suman Sahai

As the world struggles with successive food crises and turbulence marks the countries that suffer from endemic hunger, there is the new factor of global warming and climate change to contend with. Climate change and its impact on agriculture and food production is being properly understood only now, as its anticipated impacts are being felt in agricultural ecosystems across the world.

The developing countries in the tropics are more susceptible to climate change damage than the temperate countries, many of which will be beneficiaries. The worst impacts of  climate change on food production are anticipated in Africa and South Asia. For the latter where agriculture remains largely monsoon dependent, disturbances in the monsoon as we know it, could have grave implications for food and water security. If the monsoon falters, so does our food security as well as the livelihood security of large parts of the population.

Changes in rainfall patterns and temperature regimes, influence local water balance and disturb the optimal cultivation period for particular crops, known as Length of Growing Period (LGP). According to climate change data,  land with good LGP will decrease by as much as 51 million hectare world wide.

Adequate LGP is needed to ensure that medium to long duration crops are able to grow to maturity. Some crop varieties ripen quickly and are ready for use in a shorter period ( short duration varieties), others, specially among cereals require a longer period to mature. When the LGP in an agro climatic zone is long,a variety of crops from short duration to long duration can be cultivated there, throughout the growing season. This means higher food production. When the LGP contracts, the growing season is shortened, with implications for food production. Most climate change models predict large increases of LGP in today’s temperate, and arctic regions. This means that temperate regions which are currently one crop zones will become two crop zones, thus increasing agriculture production there.

Tropical areas on the other hand are slated to see an expansion of arid zones accompanied by a contraction of 31-51 million ha of favorable cultivation areas. This will mean a significant reduction in food production in the most vulnerable areas where population density is high and food is already scarce. Nearly one billion people live in these vulnerable environments, dependent on agriculture. These vulnerable populations will suffer most from climate damage like land degradation and biodiversity loss.

Climate Change Impacts in India and South Asia

According to climate data almost 40 percent of the production potential in certain developing countries could be lost. In India and South Asia, dryland areas where agriculture is rainfed, will see cutbacks in productivity due to a shorter, more uncertain monsoon. The biggest blow to food stocks however is likely to come from declining production because areas where two to three crops are being cultivated today, as in Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh, the Northeastern states and certain coastal areas, are likely to turn into single crop zones, where only one crop can be taken in a year because the rest of the season will be too hot and dry to support cultivation.

The manifestation of climate change in India and South Asia is characterised by an increase in extreme weather events. In addition, the monsoon rainfall will be reduced by 15 percent and melting Himalayan glaciers will diminish the water flow in the major rivers of North India, affecting the food production in the highly productive Indo- Gangetic plains. Sea level rise will impact the habitations of populations that live along the coast, as in Kerala or Bangladesh and loss of homesteads along with livelihoods will create a new class of climate refugees who will be forced to migrate inwards, seeking new avenues of survival, creating greater pressures on urban centres.

To cope with the impact of climate change on agriculture and food production , Asia and India will need to act  with urgency. Attention will have to be paid both to mitigation and adaptation to climate change, the real action for  which  will have to be at the local level. The pursuit of sustainable agricultural development at the local level is integral to climate- change mitigation and combating climate change effects is vital for sustainable agriculture.

Since approximately 17 percent of total GHG emissions are attributed to crop and animal husbandry , it is necessary to reduce this for the overall health of the planet. Mitigation measures can include minimizing mechanization; supplementing urea with biological fertilizer and using neem coated urea to minimize ammonia volatilization contributing to nitrous oxide emissions. An effective strategy to reduce methane emission from cattle is establishing biogas plants with animal dung which in addition provides a clean source of renewable energy. Building soil carbon banks to capture and retain carbon in the soil can be achieved by planting fertilizer trees which will add soil nutrition.

Mitigation of greenhouse gases from agricultural systems and building adaptation strategies must be anchored in the village governance systems to enhance coping capacities of farming communities. Mitigating emissions from agriculture will reduce input costs for the farmer and make the production system more sustainable but the real challenge to the food and livelihood security of our people will have to be met by rapid and targeted adaptation strategies.

Adaptation will require strategies to reduce vulnerabilities,  strengthen resilience & build the adaptive capacity of rural and farming communities. Industrial agro ecosystems damage environmental goods and services and so have weak resilience.  The ecosystem approach with crop rotations, bioorganic fertilizers and biological pest controls, improves soil health & water retention, increases fertile top soil, reduces soil erosion and maintains productivity over the long term. The more diverse the agro ecosystems, the more efficient the network of insects & and microorganisms that control pests and disease. Building resilience in agro ecosystems and farming communities, improving adaptive capacity and mitigating GHG emissions is the way to cope.

Agriculture biodiversity is central to a bio diverse, agro ecosystem approach to food production. The genetic diversity in livestock and fish species and breeds is as important as in crop varieties . Genetic diversity gives species the ability to adapt to changing environments and combat biotic and abiotic stress like pests and disease, drought and salinity. A knowledge-intensive, rather than input-intensive approach should be adopted to develop adaptation strategies.

Pest profiles will change when the climate changes and farmers will have to cope with new pests. An early warning system should be put in place to monitor changes in pest and disease profile and predict new pest and disease outbreaks. The overall pest control strategy should be based on Integrated Pest Management because it  takes care of multiple pests in a given climatic scenario. Uncertain weather will disrupt established cropping patterns, requiring a different set of crop varieties for which seed will have to be produced. Decentralized seed production involving local communities will help to produce locally adapted seed of the main and contingency crops. A network of community level seed  banks with the capacity to implement  contingency plans and alternative cropping strategies depending on the behavior of the monsoon will be a key adaptation strategy.


Suman Sahai (Dr.), is a scientist and chairperson of the Gene Campaign, a leading Indian NGO working on food, nutrition and livelihood issues. She can be reached at and


Photo: Mr. Jashim Salam for UN Women, Asia & Pacific, Flickr