Image: Dry canal in Karimnagar, Andhra Pradesh, where the failing monsoons of 2009 left farmers struggling with drought and water-demanding crops, including rice and cotton. © Peter Caton / Greenpeace
“Water wars haven't started yet, but shortages certainly cause tensions” I read this headline in the Guardian while moving back from India to the UK. Is this an exaggeration, perhaps? I’ve been welcomed back to Exeter with news about hosepipe bans, drying city lawns and droughts on the island. Am I bringing the droughts with me? Being from the South of Spain, that might be something to think about.
However, news about droughts is everywhere. In West Africa about 10 million people face starvation due to lack of water –some are collecting grain collected by ants from ant hills as a way to feed themselves. China is suffering the worst drought in decades, affecting millions of hectares of crops, livestock and people. Southeastern Australia has endured several years without enough rain and deadly wildfires. Persistent droughts in Mexico and the Western US brought more fires, wiped out crops and killed thousands of cows in 2009.
And my heart breaks as I remember the farmers I visited in India during my year living there. The 2009 season was a very dry one, and many farmers had to sit still, with nothing to do, because without water they couldn’t grow food on their land. As I visited villages in Southeastern India to say goodbye a couple of weeks ago, farmers were still waiting for the 2010 monsoon to arrive, so they can start this year’s planting. “With fingers crossed, Agriculture Ministry awaiting monsoon revival” reads The Hindu headline earlier this week. Can we do more about drought affecting farming than just crossing our fingers?
It is obvious that extreme droughts devastate food production. They are also warning signs about our food system, a system that -as we were reminded in 2008- is very vulnerable to crisis. We need to think about what we can do about our food system in the face of a more variable and unpredictable climate. We need to listen to scientists and farmers to learn how to cope with drought.
The pathway is clear: biodiversity is an important factor we must use to cope with a changing climate, as hundreds of scientists and experts have been concluding for decades. There are already many examples of modern ecological farming practices that, working with biodiversity and without chemicals, can help grow food on more resilient farms. Resilience is the capacity to deal with change and recover from it. Biodiversity and a healthy soil are central to ecological approaches to making farming more drought-resistant and more resilient to extreme events like floods. Many new drought-tolerant seeds are being developed using advance conventional breeding, without the need for genetic engineering. In contrast, there is no evidence that genetically engineered crops can play any role in increasing food security in a changing climate. Our recent scientific review illustrates proven, modern farming approaches that help cope with drought using ecological farming.
The UN Environmental Program is highlighting, in this the International Year of Biodiversity, how investing in encouraging biodiversity and ecological systems can improve food and water security and alleviate poverty. In order for humans to build a secure food system under a changing climate, governments and policy makers must increase research and investment funding available for ecological farming methods, urgently.