13) ICRISAT bares strategy for farmers when monsoons get delayed (30 June 2009)

The possibility of lower crop production or even crop failure and higher food prices when monsoon rains get delayed can be averted. This is made possible through a four-pronged s cience-based strategy developed by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). This strategy helps vulnerable farming communities cope better with drought, global warming and other associated effects of climate change.

Monsoon rains are critical to India's agriculture, and account for a sixth of the country’s economic output. About 70% of Indians depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and 60% of India's farms depend on rains.

“Climate change is real and its implications are going to be borne by the poorest of the poor,” says Dr. William Dar, ICRISAT’s Director General. “Delayed monsoons as well as below normal rainfall are not something new as these situations occur in rainfed areas very often,” adds Dr Dar. In this context, Dr Dar recommends the adoption of a four-pronged science-based strategy developed by ICRISAT for improved crop production under rainfed conditions.

First is growing drought tolerant and climate change ready crops to match the available length of the growing season and low soil moisture. ICRISAT and its partners from the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and state universities have developed and released several varieties of sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut, all of which are more drought tolerant than currently grown varieties.

ICRISAT’s genebank with over 119,000 accessions collected from 144 countries is the world’s biggest repository for the genetic traits of drought tolerant crops. The Government of India has supported ICRISAT in developing an advanced biotechnology laboratory to enhance breeding on drought tolerance in its mandate crops.

Second is contingency planning for the replacement of crops affected by drought. With delayed monsoon rains, farmers may not be able to grow their traditional crops. Instead, they should grow other shorter-duration crops. Short duration crops thrive and yield well even with scarce water as they mature before soil moisture gets depleted. For instance, in sorghum growing areas, farmers can plant improved pearl millet instead. Likewise, a contingency plan for producing seeds of dryland and other alternate crops should also be put in place.

Third is the efficient management of natural resources, arresting land degradation, conserving soil moisture, harvesting excess water in the rainy season and utilizing it for supplemental irrigation. Towards this, ICRISAT recommends the adoption of integrated genetic and natural resource management approach. Through this scheme, improved crops are grown on soils conserved through natural resource management and pursued through community participation.

Fourth is empowering stakeholders through capacity building, enabling rural institutions and formulating policies supportive of dryland agriculture. Capacity building enhances social capital through knowledge sharing and strategic partnerships. Likewise, suitable institutional mechanisms for low cost credit, market linkages, rural infrastructure, value addition and other support services need to be ensured.

To complement the foregoing, ICRISAT recommends growing an array of crops together with livestock along with other income-generating activities to lessen the risks of total crop failure and enhance farm income.

This science-based strategy has been showcased by an ICRISAT-led consortium at Kothapally, Andhra Pradesh, India. This model is being scaled out in 240 micro-watersheds in India, northeast Thailand, northern Vietnam and China benefiting 250,000 people.

Indian soils are not only thirsty, but also hungry. The ICRISAT-led consortium observed that vast rainfed areas in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are critically deficient in micro- and secondary nutrients. Hence, soil health needs to be improved urgently. Amendments with deficient micronutrients increased crop yields by 30 to 70% while the balanced fertilizer application of deficient major- and micronutrients doubled crop productivity.

ICRISAT uses new science tools like crop-growth simulation models, water balance techniques and geographic information systems (GIS) for assessing the length of the crop growing period and drought characterization. Right and timely information is the backbone of drought-preparedness. Thus, ICRISAT in partnership with the Adarsha Women's Group at Addakal, Mahbubnagar district, Andhra Pradesh is running an ICT-based information hub to help villagers cope with drought.

Water scarcity is indeed the most critical constraint of dryland agriculture. ICRISAT village level studies in India conducted since 1975 provide empirical evidence on the vulnerability of the poor to various risks and shocks caused by drought. Out of these studies, policy interventions were identified, most especially increasing the level of public investments in dryland agriculture, including significant R&D funding and enabling stronger collective action for agriculture and natural resource management.

Analysts describe India’s agricultureas a gamble with the monsoons. However, ICRISAT believes that by implementing the above steps, farmers won’t have to gamble and India will be better prepared against the effects of climate change, enjoying sustainable food security over the long term.

To pursue this, Dr Dar emphasizes that “ India should start investing for the long-term stability and sustainability of the farming sector, particularly in dryland agriculture.” By doing this, India will enable its farmers to win the gamble with the monsoons for good.

For further information, contact Dr SP Wani at s(dot)wani(at)cgiar(dot)org and Dr CLL Gowda at c(dot)gowda(at)cgiar(dot)org.

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