Going Back to the Future to Fight Climate Change

Personal Health

PENANG, Malaysia, Oct 9 (IPS/IFEJ) - When organisers of an international conference on climate change and the food crisis first scheduled the event here for late September, little did they realise the event would be sandwiched by two typhoons buffeting the region. Ironically, the first typhoon, ‘Ketsana’, delayed the arrival of conference delegates from the Philippines.

A week after Ketsana struck the Philippines on Sept. 26 and then Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, it was the turn of Typhoon Parma to wreak havoc in the Philippines on Oct. 3. Now downgraded to a tropical storm, ‘Parma’ is still lingering over the region and initially entangled with another Pacific super typhoon, ‘Melor’, which then headed towards Japan.

Ketsana left a devastating trail after it dumped the equivalent of one month's rainfall over Manila within six hours. Although Parma largely spared the country, it flooded large tracts of rice fields in northern Philippines and destroyed crops ready for harvest.

The typhoons in the region brought into sharp relief the issue of climate change as farmers struggle to cope with changing weather patterns. It is not just the sudden storms and heavy rainfalls that are disrupting farming but also the blurring of the seasons.

"If it rains, it rains heavily. In the past, there was less rainfall in September and October, but now there are heavy rains and strong winds," says Che Ani Mat Zain, a rice farmer in Kedah in northern Malaysia.

"Our yield is fine if the weather is okay, but not if it is unpredictable," he observes, adding that December and January used to be fairly dry months in Kedah, but now farmers experience more rain.

That is a pattern of disorientation that is being felt across the region. "The dry season and wet seasons are now blurred," concurs Dr Charito Medina, national coordinator for the Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (or ‘MASIPAG’, its Filipino acronym), a Philippine-based organisation bringing together 642 farmer organisations, representing 35,000 farmers, 60 non- governmental organisations and 15 scientists.

"Farmers can't rely on a dependable rainfall. For planting you need the soil to be wet, so that when you sow seeds, it will germinate," he noted at the sidelines of the conference organised by the Pesticide Action Network's Asia Pacific office on Sept. 27 to 29 in Penang.

Droughts and rainy periods seem to be longer and more intense now. "Typhoons are becoming stronger and more frequent, and strong winds may damage crops, which could cause 100 percent damage," he told IPS days before Typhoon Parma struck.

Unpredictable rainfall can disrupt the rice-planting season. If the rain stops for two weeks, there is crop failure and farmers have to replant. But they may not have any more seeds and may need to buy more from agricultural suppliers, which they may not be able to afford, points out Medina.

In Indonesia, Erpan Faryadie, secretary-general of the Alliance of Agrarian Reform Movement (or AGRA), a national peasants' organisation representing 40,000 landless peasants, farmers and agricultural workers, sees a similar dismal pattern.

Droughts and floods have become more noticeable in the last decade, after swathes of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi were heavily deforested and converted to monoculture farming. More floods have been seen in these provinces, which rarely happened before, notes Faryadie.

The situation in Java, which accounts for more than half of national rice production and where forests were lost much earlier, is more pronounced. During the rainy season, rice fields and agricultural lands in north Java are sometimes flooded. "The Green Revolution rice strains couldn’t withstand the flooding, and the farmers couldn't get their harvests after the flooding," he says.

The Green Revolution, a program begun in 1960s to avert a global food crisis, is based on the use of high-yielding seed varieties using modern inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.

"The biggest problem was the destruction of traditional farming, which was enough for farmers’ subsistence and national sufficiency if they used traditional varieties," he laments, pointing out that some of the traditional rice seeds are more resistant to drought and heavy rains, with stalks still standing after floods.

The blurring of seasons has also hit farmers in the mountains of the Central Himalayas, where the predictable climate previously ensured food security. But summer this year produced record temperatures, as the Henwal stream dried up over a two-kilometre stretch for the first time in living memory. The droughts persisted even during the monsoon season, disrupting the planting cycle.

Meanwhile, the Gangroti Glacier, the source of the Ganga River in Uttarkashi district of Garhwal Himalaya, continues to retreat by 15 to 20 metres a year. Some farmers are now trying to adapt to climate change by taking another look at traditional seeds and farming practices.

MASIPAG in the Philippines adopts a "farmers’ empowerment" approach: it encourages farmers to collect, breed and select such traditional varieties of seeds to produce organic food.

Farmers carry out experiments themselves, with up to 50 varieties planted side-by-side in trial farms, measuring 600 to 800 square metres. Traditional seed varieties are selected as they are the most adaptable, the products of selection over time. These are then collected and improved through breeding and selection.

Some traditional varieties can survive dry spells better; others are more resistant to pest and diseases, which are themselves influenced by climate change. For instance, greater humidity and moisture result in more microorganisms, which can cause diseases, whereas a prolonged dry season could lead to more insect pests.

Each organisation comprising the farmers’ network then selects the top 10 varieties for the locality under organic conditions — with zero chemical inputs — and these are distributed by the members among themselves.

"(These trials determine) the survival of the fittest (among traditional varieties)," says Medina. "In contrast, conventional agriculture creates the ideal environment by using expensive chemical inputs."

MASIPAG also promotes a diversified and integrated farming system. Farmers are encouraged to plant other crops such as tubers, which are more resistant to environmental changes because the edible portion lies below the surface of the soil. Cassava, sweet potato and cooking banana are also planted as "survival crops to fill the stomach". Biomass is composted for use as organic fertilizers.

Native chickens are reared, and these are regarded as "ATMs in the backyard": if there is a typhoon, chickens can be sold in the market to raise emergency funds to buy supplies. "You can withdraw (from these ‘ATMs’ when you need it," quips Medina. Similarly, goats and cows, which convert weed into food and produce manure for the farm, can be sold during emergencies.

Such initiatives are precisely what may be needed. A new report published by GRAIN , an international group working to support community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems, shows that more sustainable agriculture can put much of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back into the soil.

Evidence in the report shows that industrial agriculture, and the global food system of which it is part, has sent large amounts of this carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, the group said in a press release.

And calculations reveal that policies supporting small farmer-centred agriculture, which also focuses on restoring soil fertility, would play a big role in resolving the worsening climate crisis. "In 50 years the soils could capture about 450 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is more than two thirds of the current excess in the atmosphere," says the report.

But that is only if agricultural sovereignty is returned to millions of small farmers and farming communities, and policies are formulated to support their livelihoods.

"The evidence is irrefutable. If we can change the way we farm and the way we produce and distribute food, then we have a powerful solution for combating the climate crisis. There are no technical hurdles to achieving these results, it is only a matter of political will, says GRAIN coordinator Henk Hobbelink.

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