NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 50

The answer is climate smart agriculture

It was for the first time in the history of Pakistan that so much loud and persistent voices were raised about the ill effects of climate change on the country’s environment, agriculture, industry, health and other sectors after the monsoon rains struck the country on a large scale and floods washed away human dwellings as well as hundreds and thousands of acres of farmlands.

From academics to the common people, and policymakers to big landholders, not only came across the nomenclature but also complained about it as per the level of their understanding of the issue. Now almost all concerned know it well that climate change is a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates. These changes have a broad range of observed effects that are synonymous with the term.

About the causes of climate change, experts say human activity is the main cause. People burn fossil fuels and convert land from forests to agriculture. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people have burned more and more fossil fuels and changed vast areas of land from forests to farmland. In developed countries, people are more aware of causes and impact of climate change, but small farmers were taken aback by this year’s super-floods in Pakistan. They mostly took it as Allah’s anger and nature’s fury, hence there is a need for creating awareness among them about the impact of climate change on their crops and the methods to deal with it effectively in future.

Jahan Ara Wattoo, vice president of the Pakistan Businesses Forum (PBF), believes that community-based organisations must be contacted to create awareness among farmers about the phenomenon of climate change and the importance of water for their crops.

In a telephonic talk with Cutting Edge, she said that changing climate had long been threatening the productivity of the agriculture sector, making it vulnerable economically, socially and in cultural perspective. She said that Pakistan had significant variations in rainfall and temperature; therefore, its agriculture was relying heavily on river supplies.

Jahan Ara Wattoo, who herself comes from a strong agricultural and political background, said that climate shift had squeezed the monsoon pattern to two months with heavy to very heavy rains in Pakistan, thus leading to more incidents of floods as witnessed this mid-year. The unusual rains caused significant erosion of soil, inundation and medium to high floods in canal-irrigated areas and flash floods in hilly areas.

She believes that the country’s agriculture sector could be saved through community participation initiatives, in collaboration with federal and provincial governments and by improving the application of balanced nutrition, especially potash application, pest scouting, promotion of mechanization, introduction of short-duration varieties, stress management against heat and drought, fortification of crops through breeding and continuous reviews of production plans by learning through best practices.

According to the Pakistan Businesses Forum vice president, other issues of the crop sector include inadequate mapping of soil health for each agro-ecological zone for the promotion of climate-smart to eco-friendly crops. Also, the country severely suffers from insufficient farm community storages and availability of climate-smart on-farm water management technologies, she adds.

The crop simulation model-based studies by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) proved that there would be significant reductions in wheat, rice and maize yields in the arid, semi-arid and rain-fed areas of Pakistan under various scenarios by the mid and end of the century.

Jahan Ara Wattoo says climate smart agriculture is an integrated approach to develop technical, policy and investment conditions to achieve sustainable agriculture development for food security under climate change by adopting and building resilience and reducing carbon emissions. She stresses launching national agriculture emergency plans for wheat, sugarcane, rice and oilseed crops and a special plan for the revival and promotion of cotton and pulses through input-based incentives on the use of certified seeds, micro-nutrients, agriculture machinery with the use of all extension tools to maximise productivity and profitability.

The PBF vice president is appreciative of the Punjab government efforts, which have resulted in improvement in agriculture productivity in vulnerable areas like Thal and Pothohar through command area development. By building small dams, farm ponds, lined water courses, dug-wells, enhancing farmers’ capacity and laser land levelling, the cultivated area had been enhanced there, leading to an increase in yield by 20-25 per cent. However, these efforts were not sufficient and a lot of work was needed to be done for farmers of those agroecological zones that were under the continuous threat of climatic vagaries, she believes.

Ishfaq Ahmad, resilient agriculture specialist at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, says that smart management practices for today’s farms should be able to reduce the negative impacts of climate change, improve yields in current conditions, and reduce future vulnerabilities.

Suggesting solutions to the agricultural problems of different regions, he says that in southern Punjab, better methods of fertilizer application, improving sowing density and early sowing dates, as well as cultivation of heat- and drought-tolerant plant varieties will support climate-resilient wheat production.

Also, for cotton, a balanced application of fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), widening row spacing to 15 per cent more than is recommended, cultivating resilient varieties, and providing cash subsidies to small-holder farmers during cultivation periods would have a positive impact on farm returns and per capita income.

The agriculture specialist believes that if applied correctly, such interventions could increase wheat production by 21pc and cotton yield by 33pc.

As far as the central Punjab is concerned, the application of nitrogenous fertilizer with irrigation water, sowing 15 days early, increasing nitrogen fertilizer and plant populations by 10pc each, and developing heat-tolerant cultivars would be supportive to maize and pearl millet. These practices have already increased the maize yield by 21pc and pearl millet by 15pc.

Ishfaq Ahmad also has a special plan for northern Punjab. Sowing of high yielding varieties, increased plant populations by up to 30pc for wheat and up to 15pc for rice, shifting sowing dates earlier by about 15 days for wheat and 5 days for rice, increasing fertilizer up to 25pc for wheat and 15pc for rice would be the best practical responses to climate change in the area. He believes that if farmers adopt these interventions, poverty in the area might be lessened by about 13pc by the 2050s.