Agriculture and Food Systems (Part 3) by M S Swaminathan

This blog is from the series Science and Sustainable Food Security- Selected Papers of Prof. M S Swaminathan. Check out other blogs of the series here.

In the previous blog we discussed:

4. Energy and Fuelwood

  • FAO's (1989) estimate of fuelwood shortages is given in Figure 3. 
  • In India, it has been calculated that a minimum of 1.4 percent growth rate in energy availability will be needed for achieving a 1 % growth rate in GNP. However, the energy mix made available is itself often the cause of both short-term and long-term environmental damage. 
  • The deficit of firewood is growing day by day. At the present level of consumption of forest produce and on the current productivity of forests, India needs a minimum of 0.47 ha of forest land for every individual. 
  • The existing forest area on this basis would be adequate only for a population of ISO million (in contrast to the present population of 850 million). 
  • The task of improving the productivity of forests and mobilising alternative sources of energy is thus urgent.
  • A similar situation obtains with regard to fodder for animals. The population of domesticated animals is increasing, while the area under grasslands and pastures is shrinking. Thus, we will need land-saving agricultural technologies, grain-saving animal rearing methods and energy and cost-saving methods of enhancing biological productivity, if we are to face the challenges on the food production and distribution front.

5. Challenges on the Economic Scene

  • The financial and technical resources needed to promote ecologically sustainable agricultural and food production systems and to meet possible future changes in temperature, precipitation and sea levels are enormous. For example, the panicipants of the Keystone Dialogue on Plant Genetic Resources held at Madras, India, in January 1990, concluded that a minimum of US $500 million per year of new money will be needed to undertake the tasks essential for conserving for posterity a sample of the genetic variability existing in crop plants through ex situ conservation techniques. 
  • The (asks associated with sustainable agriculture such as upgrading degraded land, conserving water and in situ protection of biological diversity need considerable additional resources. It is hence unfortunate that there is today a net outflow of resources from developing to developed countries. (WCED, 1987).
  • For developing countries as a whole, external debt increased 4 percent in real terms in 1987, reaching US $1,218,000 million by the end of the year. 
  • High debt-servicing payments coupled with the low level of commercial lending and new investment, resulted in growing net transfers of resources from the poor nations to the rich (by World Bank estimates, no less than US $43,000 million in 1988, compared to US $38,100 million in 1987).
  • International agricultural trade is in disarray. The policies adopted by industrialised countries with regard to trade and domestic subsidies have contributed to surplus production and subsidized expense of agricultural products.
  • Developing countries, already burdened by the debt crisis, fluctuations in exchange rates, economic recession and volatile oil and commodity markets, are also experiencing a deterioration of terms of trade.

Even the slogan "trade and not aid" is losing its meaning. Trade barriers are growing. The scope of intellectual property rights is expanding, while there is little effort to give economic recognition to the informal innovation system which is the very foundation of agricultural evolution and of the conservation of biological diversity.

The GAIT-TRIPS (Trade related intellectual property rights) negotiations should give serious attention to methods of recognising informal innovations (Keystone Dialogue, 1990).

The concept of "dependence" now being introduced in the revised draft of the UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) should recognise the

dependence not only on varieties covered by the PBR (Plant Breeding Rights) System but also on landraces and the genetic material arising from informal innovation. 

A better common future for all will not be possible without a better common present.

6. Implication of Potential Changes in Climate

The impacts on agriculture could be of two major types.

  • First, by altering production adversely in the main food-producing areas, climate change could enhance food scarcities. The location of main food-producing regions could change. 
  • Second, there could be profound impacts on the physiological mechanisms regulating plant and animal productivity. The greatest impact is likely to come from changes in precipitation patterns.

Spatial impact

  • North America continues to be the principal grain surplus area today. The heavy dependence on North America for world grain reserves has increased the sensitivity of the world food supply to the weather and climate of that region. 
  • If unfavourable growing conditions occur simultaneously in the major mid-latitude regions of North America, the USSR and Australia, the global food security system will be under severe stress. 
  • Fortunately, detailed studies are now in progress on the potential effects of global climate change on US agriculture.
  • Oram (1985) has drawn attention to four vulnerable producer groups that may be affected severely by adverse changes in temperature and precipitation. 
  • The first is located in humid tropics, in lowland areas of Asia and in the Pacific and Caribbean. These areas, normally prone to excessive rains and flooding, maybe less severely affected by climatic change. 
  • The second group located in the arid and semi-arid areas of the tropics in Africa and South Asia and in the Mediterranean climate of West Asia and North Africa will be extremely vulnerable. 
  • A third group comprising farmers at high altitudes may experience both favourable and unfavourable effects. 
  • The fourth group consisting of farmers located at the cold margins at higher latitudes may also experience diverse effects. 
  • Parry, Porter and Carter (1990) feel that overall levels of production can be maintained through a combination of shifts of agricultural zones and adjustments in technology and management. They have identified the countries in the lower middle and lower latitudes of Africa, South America and elsewhere as the areas most at risk from the effects of climate change.

During the last 10 years, special attention has been given to the agriculture of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This region is ecologically diverse and covers an area of 22,245 sq. kms. An estimated 30% of the area can sustain the production of rainfed crops. The World Bank in a long-term perspective study titled "Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth" (World Bank, 1990) has proposed a series of measures which can enhance productivity and reduce vulnerability to ecological and economic factors. 

An important recommendation related to arresting soil erosion. Soil erosion, widespread in all areas of sub-Saharan Africa, is perhaps most serious in Ethiopia, where topsoil losses of up to 290 metric tons a hectare have been reported for steep slopes. The report lays specific stress on developing farmer's associations and recognising the role of women.

Physiological Impact

  • The Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) and the University of Birmingham, UK, initiated in 1989 a three-year study of the impact of climate change on global

agricultural output and food trade. 

  • To date, only three comprehensive regional or national assessment consequences of climate change for agriculture have been completed. The International Institute for Applied System Analysis has conducted several case studies with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (Party at. El. 1989).
  • Generally, it is assumed that increased atmospheric C02 would enhance growth rates of certain types of crop plants and that changes in temperature and precipitation would affect livestock, crops, pests and soils. 
  • They will also affect groundwater replenishment patterns and evapotranspiration rates.
  • Normally, increased C02 in the atmosphere can help to increase the rate of photosynthesis if water and nutrients do not become limiting  factors, C3 and C4 plants
  • (Le. those which have a 3-carbon or 4·carbon path for photosynthesis) respond differently. 
  • C3 crop like wheat, barley, rice and potatoes could respond positively to C02 enrichment. For wheat and barley, yield increase as much as 40% have been suggested (Cure, 1985).
  • Sinha and Swaminathan (1990) examined the integrated impact of a rise in temperature and in C02 concentration on the yield of rice and wheat in India.
  • The study showed that for rice, increasing mean daily temperature decrease the period from transplantation to maturity. 
  • Such a reduction in duration is often accompanied by decreasing crop yield.
  • There are, however, genotypic differences in per-day yield potential breeders can consciously select strains with high per-day productivity, Increasing levels of CO2 increase photosynthetic rate and hence dry mallet production but an increase in temperature reduces crop production duration and thereby yield,
  • In the case of wheat, there will be an adverse impact on yield if mean temperatures rise by 1 to 2°e. For each I)5°C increase in temperature there would be a reduction of crop duration of 7 days, which in turn would reduce yield by 0. 45 t per ha. 
  • According to Parry et al (1990) a 1°C increase in mean annual temperature would tend to advance the thermal limit of cereal cropping in mid-latitude northern hemisphere regions by about 150-200 km, and to rise to the altitudinal limit to arable agriculture by about 150- 200m.

For India as a whole, rice may become even more important than now in the national food security system, since rice can give high yields under a wider range of growing conditions than wheat. 

International testing Networks like those operated by the International Rice 

Research Institute (lRRI) and the International Center: for Maize and Wheat Research (CIMMYT) provide scope for identifying genotypes suitable for diverse gl'Owln"

conditions (Table 5).


Warrick (1988) has investigated the sensitivity of crop yields to changes in climate variables using several approaches - crop impact analysis, marginal -spatial analysis and agricultural systems analysis. Such investigations suggest that for the core mid-latitude cereal regions, average warming of 2'C may decrease potential yields by 3 to 17 percent.

  • It is obvious that more studies are needed at the micro-level in order to understand fully the inter-relationship among C02 concentration, temperature and precipitation

with reference to their impact on crop yields.

  • The position relating to world food security was characterised by FAD's Committee on World Food Security, at its Session held in Rome from 26-30 March 1990, as "critically dependent on the outcome of the 1990 crops". 
  • This underlines the urgency of intensifying ongoing research on crop-weather interaction.

Implications of Sea-level Rise

  • The magnitude of a likely rise in sea level is not yet clear, because of inadequate knowledge of the processes of ice melt and thermal expansion of ocean water. 
  • The definition of sea-level at shoreline positions also presents difficulties, as a result of variations arising from the tectonic or isostatic movement of the landmass. 
  • Several projections indicate a rate of sea-level rise of 0.5 cm per year or 50 cm per 100 years over the next half-century.
  • Rise of mean sea-level has an immediate and direct effect on the ecosystems of the intertidal zone. It is likely that species with specific tolerances within the tidal spectrum will migrate landwards. 
  • Several studies have been conducted on the potential effect of sea-level rise on mangrove swamps (Ellison, 1989). 
  • Mangroves generally Coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves are being destroyed in the coastal areas of several countries due to expansion of tourism, coastal aquaculture, industrial exploitation and pollution. It will be difficult to adapt to new situations in the future if the existing genetic variability in coastal fauna and flora is lost. Hence efforts to conserve the mangrove genetic resources are needed.

The blog on Agriculture and Food Systems (Part 3) by M S Swaminathan pertains to UPSC papers GS 2 hunger and malnutrition, GS 3 Agriculture and Food security. Don’t forget to subscribe so that you never miss out on such important and interesting topics. Check out our previous blogs on various topics here.

Blog Post written by:
Anurag Trivedi
UPSC Mentor