By Lester Brown
26 July, 2012
Earth Policy Institute
In the early spring of 2012, U.S. farmers were on their way to planting some 96 million acres in corn, the most in 75 years. A warm early spring got the crop off to a great start. Analysts were predicting the largest corn harvest on record.
The United States is the leading producer and exporter of corn, the world’s feedgrain. At home, corn accounts for four-fifths of the U.S. grain harvest. Internationally, the U.S. corn crop exceeds China’s rice and wheat harvests combined. Among the big three grains – corn, wheat, and rice – corn is now the leader, with production well above that of wheat and nearly double that of rice.
The corn plant is as sensitive as it is productive. Thirsty and fast-growing, it is vulnerable to both extreme heat and drought. At elevated temperatures, the corn plant, which is normally so productive, goes into thermal shock.
As spring turned into summer, the thermometer began to rise across the Corn Belt. In St. Louis, Missouri, in the southern Corn Belt, the temperature in late June and early July climbed to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher 10 days in a row. For the past several weeks, the Corn Belt has been blanketed with dehydrating heat.
Weekly drought maps published by the University of Nebraska show the drought-stricken area spreading across more and more of the country until, by mid-July, it engulfed virtually the entire Corn Belt. Soil moisture readings in the Corn Belt are now among the lowest ever recorded.
While temperature, rainfall, and drought serve as indirect indicators of crop growing conditions, each week the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases a report on the actual state of the corn crop. This year the early reports were promising. On May 21st, 77 percent of the U.S. corn crop was rated as good to excellent. The following week the share of the crop in this category dropped to 72 percent. Over the next eight weeks, it dropped to 26 percent, one of the lowest ratings on record. The other 74 percent is rated very poor to fair. And the crop is still deteriorating.
Over a span of weeks, we have seen how the more extreme weather events that come with climate change can affect food security. Since the beginning of June, corn prices have increased by nearly one half, reaching an all-time high on July 19th.
Although the world was hoping for a good U.S. harvest to replenish dangerously low grain stocks, this is no longer in the cards. World carryover stocks of grain will fall further at the end of this crop year, making the food situation even more precarious. Food prices, already elevated, will follow the price of corn upward, quite possibly to record highs.
Not only is the current food situation deteriorating, but so is the global food system itself. We saw early signs of the unraveling in 2008 following an abrupt doubling of world grain prices. As world food prices climbed, exporting countries began restricting grain exports to keep their domestic food prices down. In response, governments of importing countries panicked. Some of them turned to buying or leasing land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves.
Welcome to the new geopolitics of food scarcity. As food supplies tighten, we are moving into a new food era, one in which it is every country for itself.
The world is in serious trouble on the food front. But there is little evidence that political leaders have yet grasped the magnitude of what is happening. The progress in reducing hunger in recent decades has been reversed. Unless we move quickly to adopt new population, energy, and water policies, the goal of eradicating hunger will remain just that.
Time is running out. The world may be much closer to an unmanageable food shortage – replete with soaring food prices, spreading food unrest, and ultimately political instability– than most people realize.
Lester Russel Brown is an United States environmentalist, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. BBC Radio commentator Peter Day calls him “one of the great pioneer environmentalists.” His forthcoming book is Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, due to be published in October 2012.
Copyright © 2012 Earth Policy Institute
*NOTE: This piece originally appeared in The Guardian on July 24, 2012.
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Monsoon, or later
Jul 28th 2012 | DASNA, UTTAR PRADESH | from the print edition
A farmer walks through a dry, cracked paddy-field on the outskirts of Jammu. The monsoon, which usually starts to arrive in June, has barely come at all this year
Hindu priests perform rituals in prayer for the rains at a temple in Ahmedabad
After two summers of erratic and delayed monsoons, this year the rains simply failed. Mr Singh cannot afford to pay for a borehole, generator and diesel to reach ever-diminishing groundwater. Farmers always grumble. But Mr Singh has lost half of his annual income of 50,000 rupees ($890) and now depends upon his crop of winter wheat. Another farmer nearby fears he must sell his land to pay accumulated debts to moneylenders.
The country remains predominantly rural: over 600m out of 1.24 billion Indians rely directly on farming. Nearly two-thirds of Indian fields are fed only by rain. A one-off drought is tolerable. Rural job-creation schemes have lifted incomes for the poorest. Food prices have only started to creep up. Granaries are overflowing, thanks to recent bumper crops.
What is disturbing, though, are tentative signs of long-term change to the summer rains. A less stable monsoon pattern would be harder to predict. It would arrive late more often, yield less water, become more sporadic, or dump rain in shorter, more destructive bursts (which happened two years ago in Pakistan, where the Indus basin disastrously flooded). The concerns of experts about the monsoon long predate today’s dry spell.
Too little is known about summer weather systems on the subcontinent. India is short of observation stations, weather planes, satellites, climate scientists and modellers. The government and foreign donors are scrambling to make amends. But even with better data, monsoons are ill-understood once they leave the sea or low-lying land. At altitude, notably, for instance, approaching the Himalayas, it is far trickier to grasp just how factors such as wind direction, air pressure, latent heating and moisture levels interact to deliver monsoon rains.
One trend looks clear: India has grown warmer over the past six decades. Glaciers are melting in the Himalayas, and orchards in the range’s valleys are being planted on ever-higher slopes in search of a temperate climate. Crops in the northern grain belt, notably wheat, are near their maximum tolerance to heat, and so are vulnerable to short-term blasts of higher temperatures. North India’s cities are also growing hotter.
How more warmth affects the monsoon is not straightforward. A land mass heating faster than the oceans will, in theory, draw in more moisture to produce heavier monsoons. Yet the reverse appears to be happening. Specialists who met in February in Pune, in Maharashtra state, reported a 4.5% decline in monsoon rain in the three decades to 2009.
India’s leading climate modeller, R. Krishnan, of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, points to a study showing a “steady decline” in rainfall on the Western Ghats, which run down the west coast. A Japanese model that he has applied to southern India predicts that a still more rapid decline in rainfall is likely.
Such a fall may matter little for states such as Kerala in the south, which gets a monthly drenching of 50 centimetres (20 inches) during the wet season. But Mr Krishnan notes other changes, notably evidence that far fewer depressions have formed in the Bay of Bengal, off India’s east coast, in recent summers. Since these help drive rain to India’s arid northern plains, he concludes that “there is every reason to be concerned about the monsoon.”
Explanations exist for some of this. One theory is that a growing mass of particulates, such as coal dust and biomass (from the widespread use of cow dung as fuel, for instance) in the air above India, now hinders rainfall. Timothy Lenton, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter, argues that such pollution could trigger wider instability in the monsoon.
Yet a decline in average rainfall may not be the main worry. Experts who met in Delhi in May to discuss climate-induced “extreme events” in India suggest that likelier threats include more short and devastating downpours and storms, more frequent floods and droughts, longer consecutive dry days within monsoons, more rapid drying of the soil as the land heats, and a greater likelihood that plant and animal diseases might spread.
It does not bode well for farmers, or for crammed cities with poor sewerage and other rotten infrastructure. Slums and coastal cities look especially vulnerable. Mumbai was overwhelmed in 2005 when nearly a metre of rain was dumped on the city in 24 hours.
Such events will happen more often, the highest official in the country’s environment ministry warns. He wants urgently to bring about a big increase in insurance schemes that spread weather-related risks. Rajendra Pachauri, who leads the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, worries that India is not yet even seriously debating the new threats. He says it is ill-prepared for floods and droughts “that are now considered once-in-every-20-years events, but will be happening once in two years”.
The data harvest
The most pressing need is to gather and analyse data. This month Indian scientists and foreign partners launched a five-year “monsoon mission” to develop climate models for the region. India’s government is beginning to act, by setting up new Doppler radar stations to track weather systems over mountains. It is launching a new plane to fly into cyclones to study their behaviour. Better still, India and its neighbours could start sharing weather data, comparing ground and satellite observations, for example.
More can be done elsewhere, too. Most obviously, even the poorest farmers could work together better to store rainwater, for instance in ponds and tanks, rather than praying for the skies to open. The share of India’s farmland that is irrigated could roughly double, officials say. Huge scope exists to reduce losses through evaporation and leakage from shoddy irrigation systems.
More sophisticated farmers are getting better informed. One Indian firm, Weather Risk, sells forecasts to some 75,000 subscribers, mostly farmers across 15 states. Each pays just 30 rupees a month for the information the firm supplies. It looks worthwhile. Sonu Agrawal of Weather Risk notes growing demand for detail on highly localised conditions and short-term rain and hail forecasts. Demand for crop insurance is also rising.
Mr Agrawal and others remain sanguine about today’s dry patch, calling it typical of the sort of droughts that often show up in historic data stored by insurance firms. But given great gaps in knowledge about the monsoon, and uncertainties over climate change, the need for more accurate and complete data seems pressing. Studying the late rains this year will not help Prithi Singh and his parched plot today. But clarifying which, if any, trend poses the greatest threats to farmers like him could turn out to be one of India’s most important tasks.
For more than two decades, Gupta has scoured rural India for its hidden innovations, motivated by the belief that the most powerful ideas for fighting poverty and hardship won’t come from corporate research labs, but from ordinary people struggling to survive.
Gupta, 59, and his aides have uncovered more than 25,000 inventions, from the bicycle-mounted crop sprayer to the electric paintbrush that never needs to be dipped in a paint can.
Many of the cheap, simple ideas he spreads for free from one poor village to another with the inventor’s blessing. Some he is working to bring to market, ensuring the innovator gets the credit and the profit that will spur others to create as well. Many ideas are simply documented in his database waiting for some investor to spot their potential. He routinely dispenses tiny grants, either from a government fund or his own web of organizations, to help poor innovators finish their projects.
The management professor with a thick graying beard reminiscent of an ascetic holy man says he gets no financial benefit from his finds, reveling instead, with almost childlike joy, in the process of discovery itself.
“Every time we walk in a place we discover a solution that we would not have imagined, and we find that eagerness,” he said.
Many finds focus on agriculture: a more productive strain of peppers, a makeshift seat that lets coconut harvesters rest high up in trees, a hollow spear that pierces a hole in a field and drops in a seed.
There are traditional herbal medicines for cracked heels and sore muscles, stoves and engines modified to be more efficient, and a rice cleaner designed by a 13-year-old after he watched his mother wearily picking pebbles from yet another sack of grain.
And there are the eyebrow-raisers: the washing machine mounted on the back of a scooter and powered by its engine, the bulletproof vest packed with herbs that absorb the concussive force of the bullet, the amphibious bicycle.
‘IDEAS OF INDIA’
Gupta has received the Padma Shri, one of India’s top honours. He helped found the government-sponsored National Innovation Foundation, routinely addresses top business conferences and recently linked up with one of India’s largest retailers, Future Group, to bring some of the most promising finds to market.
Consumers will be attracted to the products — everything from all-natural cookies to a toothbrush that adds its own toothpaste — because the profits go to a good cause and because of the subtle simplicity of the inventions, said Ashni Biyani, a top Future Group executive.
“These are ideas that are rooted within the context of India,” she said.
Gupta’s explorations have boosted inventors throughout rural India who, much like the “mad” uncles tinkering away in garages around the world, are dismissed as nuts by their neighbors until he arrives and declares them geniuses.
Take Nattubhai Vader, a farmer from the state of Gujarat, who watched women and children harvesting an especially troublesome variety of cotton and figured there had to be a better way.
Vader designed and then obsessively tweaked a massive apparatus of spinning rubber hoses and vacuums that fits over a tractor and can pick as much cotton in one hour as 10 people can in two days, he said.
He sank more than $20,000 (Rs. 11 lakh approximately) into the harvester before his wife threatened to divorce him if he didn’t save the family’s remaining money for their kids’ education. A few years later, Gupta found Vader, gave him the funding to restart and now plans to bring in a team of engineering students to refine it.
At the heart of Gupta’s mission are his grueling weeklong Shodh Yatras, consisting of 20-km daily hikes in the searing summer and frigid winter, nights spent sleeping in school courtyards, meals of watery lentils. The idea is to scare off uncommitted “tourists” and give participants a taste of peasant life.
“Your eyes will open and you will see things you’ve never seen before,” Akash Badave, a 23-year-old preparing to be rural administrator, says Gupta told him before the first of his three Shodh Yatras. “And that was the case.”
On one recent trek along parched hillsides in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, Gupta was accompanied by dozens of followers: young urbanites curious about rural poverty, an engineer who came to find herself, a team of inventors he collected from his previous journeys.
He began the hike after arriving on an overnight flight from China, marched in rubber sandals, drank little water despite the heat and even fasted for a day.
His arrival at a village rarely visited by outsiders was an event akin to the circus coming to town.
He handed out colorful magazines and pamphlets showing farmers how to make natural pesticides out of local plants, to treat cattle diseases with spice mixtures, to prolong the life of their water pump by sticking an old tire under the handle. And he appealed to them to come up with ideas of their own.
“Solutions to our problems are not so scarce,” he declared.
As an example, he introduced Amrit Agrawat who more than two decades ago was watching women in his village struggle to pull heavy water buckets from a well. Agrawat made a pulley with an automatic brake so the women could rest without the bucket plunging back down. It costs $7 (around Rs. 400)
Wonderful, one man said, “now my wife can answer her cellphone while she gets water.”
Agrawat has sold 5,000 of his pulleys, but donated one to each village along the way and encouraged the farmers to copy it for themselves.
In Dhaboti, Gupta was escorted through the streets by a drummer calling out the villagers, Murali Dar, 80, hobbled over on a cane, holding twigs from a tree. A powder made from these can cure a fever, he said. Another man brought herbs to cure jaundice, yet another a wild lemon for animal cramps.
Kanhiaya Lal, 62, brought branches he uses to make an antidote for snake bites.
“If I die, the secret will die with me of how to cure people,” he said.
The offerings were documented by assistants with notebooks. Then, in a simple ceremony that reduced its participants to silent awe, Gupta gave each man a certificate and draped a shawl on his shoulders.
In the village of Moghra, a truck halted in a cloud of dust in the courtyard where Gupta and his team had spent the night. Abdul Rahim Khan had rushed over when his brother told him of the arrival of a man who might finally appreciate his work.
The farmer unloaded a miniature cotton gin that cost less than $4 (around Rs. 220) to make and saved 10 times as much each year in processing fees. “A very good idea,” Gupta pronounced. Next was a wooden fodder cutter he made for a fraction the cost of the metal ones on the market.
Any more ideas? Gupta asked.
Khan had been toying with a design for a more efficient soybean harvester, but he didn’t have the Rs. 8,000 for a prototype, he said.
Gupta promised him the money.
Khan’s obsessions had made him an object of ridicule. Now, “I’m feeling very happy that someone has recognized my ideas and is trying to take it forward,” he said.
Gupta was pleased as well. Out-of-the-box thinkers need to be encouraged, not insulted, he said.
TREKS FOR INNOVATIONS
Gupta insisted every one of his 29 treks had yielded innovations. If the men didn’t bring him inventions, he called on the women to bring recipes — “chemistry,” he said. He interviewed every centenarian he met, documenting their secrets of longevity and dismissing doubts they may not be anywhere near as old as they claimed.
He carried a spoon and small plastic bags to dig up dirt — “microbial memories” — for later analysis, and photographed anything that caught his eye, such as an interesting paint job.
Gupta ran excitedly to a field being plowed and stepped through a barbed wire fence. He had heard tractor owners in the area were filling their tires with water to make them heavier for digging into the hard soil.
He located Ghanshayam Yadav, the man credited with having the idea in 2004. Farmers were having trouble plowing the increasingly dense fields and the tractor company was charging Rs. 10,000 for 80 kg weights, Yadav said. Instead, he pumped 200 kg of water into the tires for just Rs. 200.
Cheaper, better, longer lasting, more efficient. “This is an amazing experiment,” Gupta said. He gave Yadav a shawl.
Gupta’s most successful finds include more productive varieties of rice, wheat and other crops that have been widely adopted. He has licensed out pest control mixtures, pet medicines and a psoriasis cream and is looking for partners to market crop growth promoters, a treatment for animal diarrhea and a natural mosquito repellant.
His team helped A. Muruganantham sell hundreds of his machines for making cheap sanitary napkins from wood fiber. And he takes pride in his most successful discovery, Mansukhbhai Prajapati, a once struggling potter who parlayed a clay refrigerator that cools by evaporation into a kitchenware company employing 30 people.
Gupta began as a bank loan officer before working in the 1980s with farmers in Bangladesh, where he was amazed at the creativity of the poor.
When he came home to India, he dedicated himself to fostering that creativity and ensuring poor innovators got properly compensated. He founded his Honeybee Network in the 1980s to connect people and ideas, lobbied the government to create the National Innovation Foundation and set up a network of related organizations to encourage inventors. He soon began touring rural India searching for inventors and spreading ideas.
“Before he came we never really thought about innovation,” farmer Hari Singh, 85, said after Gupta presented ideas for harvesting rainwater and making a natural pesticide with local leaves that animals shy away from. His son Kunwar said he was inspired to develop experiments of his own.
Gupta dreams his ideas will expand beyond India’s borders, with treks for knowledge spreading to the unexplored corners of the globe.
For now he presses on, jumping over a ditch in a dried up lake bed on his way to the next village.
“There’s so much to see,” he says. “You would need several lifetimes.”
NEW DELHI: More farmers are using weather insurance to mitigate risks from climate change. Top two weather insurers — Agricultural Insurance Corporation (AIC) and ICICI Lombard — say business is growing at 25% annually and now covers more than 200 districts across 21 states.
“The growth has been so spectacular over the past five years that as many as 12 million farmers, growing crops on over 15 million hectares of cropped area, might have been insured during the 2011-12 crop year,” said KN Rao, deputy general manager, AIC, which enjoys over 75% market share in this insurance category.
While the state-owned AIC covers almost all the designated districts, its nearest competitor ICICI Lombard is present in 11 states, covering over 50 districts. According to Union agriculture ministry, five insurance companies including AIC, ICICI Lombard, Iffco-Tokio and Cholamandlam MS offer insurance to farmers based on monsoon data.
“Uncertainty over monsoon and frequent climate changes have made it necessary for farmers to go for weather-based insurance. This provides them the much-needed cover and helps them withstand financial stress, which may happen due to crop loss,” said RS Sharma, senior agri-scientist, Agricultural Policy Research Institute.
Weather insurance was formally introduced in 2003 as a pilot, and by 2007 the government adopted it as an alternative to the existing yield index insurance. Around 40 crops are insured under the category for various climatic phenomena like deficit rainfall, dry-spell, excess rainfall, low temperature, high temperature, high humidity, and high wind.
The premium rates are capped for the cultivator and the premium (rates) beyond the cap are shared by the Centre and concerned state government on 50:50 basis.
“The premium rates for farmers depend on various crops. For wheat, it is capped at 1.5% while for other food crops, it is 2.0%,” said an AIC official.
With the rising popularity of weather-based insurance, the premium business as well as beneficiaries has also gone up over the past few years.
“In the 2010-11 crop year, premium collection was around Rs 1,300 crore while the claim was around Rs 635 crore, benefitting 43.29 lakh farmers. In 2011-12, the premium collection went up to around Rs 1,850 crore while the claims and beneficiaries increased to Rs 887 crore and 46 lakh farmers, respectively,” said an AIC official.
However, weather insurance has its own challenges while catering to over 25-crore farmers in the country.
“One of the key challenges in weather index insurance has been establishing an adequate network of weather stations to service weather insurance as a credible insurance programme. It is estimated that the country needs around 8,000 automatic weather stations and about 32,000 rain gauges to effectively service the index insurance compared to the current network of 5,000,” added Rao.