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In a Warmer World: Thoughts from ICRISAT’s Director General

A Pearl Millet farmer in India Photo: A Paul-Bossuet, ICRISAT
A Pearl Millet farmer in India Photo: A Paul-Bossuet, ICRISAT

This is a reposting (see the original posting here) of a May 1st article by ICRISAT‘s Director General discussing the implications of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014 Impact Report. The Director General stresses the importance of nutritious and resilient grains like sorghum and millet and discusses how farmers need support to cultivate these critical crops.

Check out a recent TCi blog describing the ongoing partnership between TCi, ICRISAT, and private-ssector companies in India working on improving millet and pulse value chains for linking smallholder farmers and improving the diets of rural Indian households. 

Climate scientists from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have recently compiled thousands of climate change related studies from around the world into their fifth Assessment Report. This confirms that climate change is happening even faster, and with more damaging effects, than previously anticipated.

They also made it clear that climate change will be harmful to everybody by affecting the world’s food supply. Most climate scenarios depict a world warmer by two degrees or more by 2100, predicting sharp crop yield declines for major grains like wheat and maize.

Support farmers to grow more climate resilient “heritage” grains

A rethink of what we grow in arid regions, supporting traditional climate smart crops like millet, which needs 3.5 times less water than rice to grow, would make sense. This would lead to a more water efficient agriculture, but changing our food systems is not easy.

Unfortunately, with the globalization of our food supply, traditional grains have been receding in favor of wheat, rice and maize. In the last 50 years, millets and sorghum consumption have declined by 45% and 52%. This decline has been reflected in the cultivation of these crops in the drylands. A recent study from CCAFS suggests that our reliance on fewer crops in the last decades increases the vulnerability of our food systems to droughts, pests, diseases and climate change.

We need to anticipate a drier and warmer climate and join efforts to promote the traditional climate hardy grains such as pearl millet, other small millets and sorghum which are often the only crops adapted to hot, dry climates and erratic rains.

This is particularly important as these resilient grains are also essential for the food and nutrition security of millions of farming families in arid lands. Millets for instance are nutritious, gluten free, rich in protein and iron, virtues that need to discovered and promoted across the globe.

This will be helped by the growing importance of “food for health” in recent years. Efforts by Professor MS Swaminathan to incorporate millet as a nutri-cereal in the Public Distribution System in India and the first commercialization of iron-rich biofortified pearl millet seeds are encouraging.

Climate smart innovations to help farmers adapt to warmer and drier environments

A recently installed LeasyScan phenotyping platform, the first of its kind in CGIAR, will catalyze our plant breeding for drought adaptation as we are now able to measure leaf area quicker to automatically capture plant drought adaptation traits such as leaf development dynamics and leaf conductance. This will also help improve our crop modelling under various drought conditions, and speed up the development of improved drought-tolerant cultivars. The impact can be tremendous for example for Indian farmers growing post-rainy (rabi) sorghum on 5.7 million hectares.

Global warming will also have implications on the way farmers manage their crops. Our Center of Excellence on Climate Change Research for Plant Protection looks at the impact on insect/pest risks on chickpea and pigeonpea.

Promoting practices to diversify crops, for instance legume-cereal intercropping, is more likely to provide a sufficient and balanced diet for rural households in a variable climate. In Malawi, it was found that farmers practicing pigeonpea-maize intercropping were more food secure than those practicing maize monoculture.

Generating climate smart innovations such as the ones mentioned above are becoming crucial to ensure a better food security in the decades to come. It is also important to work with farmers to experiment with adaptation strategies such as crop diversity and conservation farming practices in twinned climate analogue locations.

We need a better understanding of the impact of climate change on crop production and food systems The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project AGMIP will help inform decision-makers of highly predictive scenarios for better adaptation policies at regional and local scale.

Rural poor in the semi-arid tropics will be worst hit by climate change

Global warming will most probably increase inequalities as the most vulnerable people have fewer resources to adapt. Droughts, heat waves and flash floods are more frequent and severely reduce grain harvests, putting even more pressure on rural households living in poverty, recurrent food insecurity and malnutrition. This is especially true in rural areas in developing countries where rainfed agriculture, highly vulnerable to extreme rain and temperature conditions, is the main livelihood option for many.

Climate change could also impact differently across gender. Custom in Senegal means that women’s fields are planted a month later than men’s, thereby exposing them to more risk when rains terminate earlier as observed in recent years.

Warming is expected to be greater in tropical regions where ICRISAT works and building climate resilience for the rural poor in the drylands is and will remain at the core of ICRISAT’s research strategy for the years to come.

I am convinced that these nutritious and hardy crops should and will play a greater role in ensuring our future food systems are more resilient. Let’s hope that millets, sorghum, and grain legumes will get more attention from research partners, governments and donors during the upcoming resilience conferences in Montpellier and Addis Ababa this month, helping to boost coping mechanisms for farmers facing the brewing storm.

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