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Localising climate change, farm truths and the agropedia potential

P Basappa lives and farms in the district of Bagalkot in northern Karnataka. She decides how to use her family's two-acre field, how much to allocate to maize, to the nigerseed stand as a cash crop, to cowpea as a fodder crop for her cattle (the goats and poultry forage). Her two children are more often at school than in the fields and Basappa T, her husband, is a part-time party worker and a partner in a small repair shop owned bu his uncle. As is typical in these parts, P Basappa's family derive their earnings from several sources.

She owns a mobile phone, her own. Last year, she had been approached by two agents of a company selling price information. Spend 80 rupees a month, she was told, and you'll get the information on your phone which can help you earn more through your farming. She thought about it for a while, then decided not to buy the subscription. What P Basappa is far more interested in is the climate. She remembers some of the lore from her mother and grandmother, a few others in the block self-help group have written down what they learned. P Basappa can't write, but she knows enough about the application on her simple, low-cost mobile phone to send out, every three or four days, a small multiple choice answer sheet from it.

Her little broadcast, from Linganur taluka in Bagalkot district in northern Karnataka, is collected along with several hundred such broadcasts from small cultivators like her over four districts. In a modest apartment in Mudhol town, these broadcasts are collected by B Manjunath and T Rangaiah, two friends who retired from salaried jobs a few years ago. Looking for a way to put their experience and time to good use, they learned about the district climate mapping project, set up the simple system (reliable power is always a problem) and are able to monitor what they receive promptly and usefully. Well enough in fact to re-transmit to all those covered by this north Karnataka network weather and climate alerts that arrive, every day, as animated visuals that are easy to grasp and can be used to link to detailed data. It is, P Basappa thinks, far more useful than price numbers from a market she has never seen and whose workings she feels distant from.

P Basappa is not a real person. Nor are Basappa T, or the industrious Manjunath and Rangaiah. The open source district climate network does not exist, yet. But it should, and can with but a small investment in technology and a far more valuable investment in encouraging the temper with which to foster such collaboration.

Agropedia talks mainly about what happens to crops and what can be done to remedy cultivation problems. Other examples of the use of ICT (information and communication technology) in agriculture in India have, far more visibly, had to do with prices data. This is said to be useful to those farmers who can profitably make use of such data, but it is only a small part of the potential that ICT can bring to agriculture. Why has this potential remained small even though India has, for example, been able to provide e-learning kiosks in slum colonies and manufacture extremely low-cost tablets? A part of the reason is the way in which  'development' is designed to flow in our administrative and scientific paradigms. Neither democratic nor inclusive, knowledge and innovation are typically seen as the products of a system which has the weight of many decades of public investment behind it.

Yes and no. Yes, there is a legacy of public investment in the creation of knowledge. No, it does not in any meaningful way compare with the size and depth and richness of traditional and indigenous knowledge in India. B t, there are P Basappas who can exist in between. How to find them, encourage them, learn from them, and turn them into teacher-cultivators? Agropedia has, in its early phase, attempted to frame such questions. The answering of these questions will come from the agricultural community and, we hope sooner rather than later, directly from talukas in northern Karnataka.

We are already seeing why collaborative climate change monitoring of the kind speculatively fictionalised here is needed, immediately. Late in January 2012, a few news reports mentioned a new study that has shown how
it could be much more difficult than we thought to feed everyone in a warmer world. Satellite images of northern India have revealed that extreme temperatures are cutting wheat yields. India is expecting the 2011-12 wheat harvest to be 84 million tons - after the 85.9 mt of 2010-11- but what will the wheat harvest be in 2015-16? Right now, no-one can say. What's more, models used to predict the effects of global warming on food supply may have underestimated the problem by a third.

As this news story has explained, the study's authors studied nine years of satellite measurements of wheat growth from northern India, tracking the impact of exposure to temperatures greater than 34 degrees Celsius to measure rates of senescence. They detected a significant acceleration of aging that reduced the grain-filling period. Depending on the sowing date, the grain losses from rapid aging could reach up to 20%, the scientists found in the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

A few Indian newspapers followed the finding. The Deccan Herald (also from Karnataka, which is why P Basappa makes for an apt character) said that the "findings suggest that existing models underestimate the effects of heat on wheat maturity, which in turn puts a limit to grain filling and grain yields. Crop forecasting models underestimate this risk. High temperature affects crop growth at many stages of development and through several different mechanisms".

There is of course a response from the crop scientists. Our wheat scientists told the newspaper that they knew about the threats and were currently working on strategies to overcome them. "Wheat production in India is always a gamble against temperature. We succeed due to the blessings of the snow-capped Himalayas, which lowers the temperature in mid-February and March," S Natrajan, former director of the ICAR's Directorate of Wheat Research in Karnal told the Deccan Herald.

Well, yes, it is a gamble, but the gamblers are the farmers and cultivators and their families. Not the scientists and not the administrators. That is why those who have 'bet' their lands and livelihoods must be equipped and encouraged to hedge their bets. They still use that vast collective fund of traditional knowledge as a guide, but the soothsayers in our agricultural communities have grown old now, and there are few to replace them. Technology and models can help in a limited way, they cannot replace.

In the report by the New Scientist on the study a clue about both the potential of collaborative ICT and the cultural challenge is seen in the statement by the study's lead author. "It surprised me a little how much crop models underestimate the observed effects," said David Lobell of Stanford University (USA, California) whose study used the bank of images from the MODIS Earth-observation satellite to track when wheat in the Indo-Gangetic region turned from green to brown, a sign that the grain is no longer growing. He said the crop models might have especially underestimated the impact of hot spells. Using the ICT at our disposal, and combining it with our rural knowledge pathways can help prevent this gloomy view of India's wheat future being visited upon our other crops.


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Please note that this is the opinion of the author and is Not Certified by ICAR or any of its authorised agents.