‘We need to deal with climate change. Any other solution will be a band-aid’

P Anima | Updated on October 16, 2020

One size doesn’t fit all: To know what farmers want, it’s important to work with them to find solutions specific to their context, says Professor Navin Ramankutty   -  THE HINDU/Lakshmi Narayanan

The havoc caused to land by agricultural practices is not lost on us, but we don’t know how to reverse it, observes Navin Ramankutty, winner of the 20th Wihuri International Prize

* Over the past three centuries, vast tracts of land have been cleared to feed one species

* On an average, agriculture around the world is causing great environmental damage

* One of the things I have been asking myself more recently is whether we know what farmers want

* I don’t think organic farming is a silver bullet

Professor Navin Ramankutty, winner of the 20th Wihuri International Prize   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


For years, Navin Ramankutty’s research has wrestled with an elemental dilemma: How to feed the 10 billion people on the planet without further bruising the environment. Over the past three centuries, vast tracts of land have been cleared to feed one species, points out the professor, who was last week awarded the 20th Wihuri International Prize for his work on sustainable land use and food systems. Ramankutty, the Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change and Food Security at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is the first Indian-origin scientist to win the prestigious €150,000 Finnish prize founded in 1953. At the Land Use and Global Environment Lab at the university, Ramankutty, along with a handful of researchers, studies the links between environmental footprint and food security.

A mechanical engineer from Coimbatore’s PSG College of Technology, he made the transition from engineering to sustainability studies early in his academic career. Ramankutty (50) credits the right mix of “privilege, luck and work” with steering him towards his true interests. The youngest son of a postal department employee and a homemaker, he grew up in Coimbatore with two siblings. His brothers, he says, were a source of academic guidance and he was among peers who spurred him to think big. Yet, having joined an engineering college and despite doing well in the course, the professor says he had an inkling that the discipline was not his calling — a realisation that eventually prompted him to earn a doctorate in land resources from the University of Wisconsin, US. In a career spanning over two decades, Ramankutty has studied ways to make food production more environmentally sustainable and climate-resilient. With the planet experiencing extreme weather conditions, it’s imperative, he says, to recalibrate methods of agriculture.

In an email interview with BLink, Ramankutty discusses the need for greater collaboration among disciplines, and the short-sightedness of dealing with sustainability without addressing climate change. Edited excerpts:

You put things in perspective when you point out that over the past 300 years vast amounts of land have been cleared to feed one species — humans. However, in many developing countries such as India, the battle is still between land use and ‘development’. The recent move to protect the Aarey forests in Maharashtra is one such example. How far are we from seriously understanding the land degradation caused by agriculture practices?

I tend to think of this in terms of inequality. You are absolutely right: India is one of the countries with a large number of poor and undernourished people and where development challenges remain predominant. But much of the Western world consumes far more than is needed for good health. Of course, there is great inequality within countries also — there is poverty in rich countries, and there are hyper-wealthy people in poor countries. On an average, agriculture around the world is causing great environmental damage. The only way I can imagine this could be addressed is by addressing inequality at the same time, so that the poor can have more nutritious food necessary for their health, while the rich reduce overconsumption.

I don’t understand the last part of your question — I would say that we understand land degradation caused by agricultural practices very well; we just don’t know how to reverse it.

The premise of your research deals with a perpetual dilemma — the need to feed 10 billion people and the systematic land degradation it entails. Researchers, including you, had proposed solutions in a 2011 study. Can you elaborate on some of those?

In that 2011 study [Solutions for a cultivated planet, published in Nature], we discussed and analysed the global potential of the following four solutions — the first two on the supply side, last two on demand side. Halting deforestation; closing yield gaps, and doing it while improving resource-use efficiency (some people might call this ‘sustainable intensification’); shifting diets to more plant-based foods, and reducing food loss and waste.

To understand the depth of plunder and to act decisively, is it necessary to not study disciplines in isolation, but in relation to one another, where science and production are not divested from sociology, ethics, environment or climate change?

Absolutely! This is precisely why many scholars and institutions are calling for more inter- and trans-disciplinary research. There is a lot more research these days that is done in collaboration with people from multiple disciplines, and using theories and approaches from different disciplines. But we are probably still predominantly divided by disciplines.

Over the past few years, Indian farmers have experienced first-hand the impact of climate change and extreme weather conditions on agriculture. Consequently, it has generated discussions on sustainable practices. What is the kind of support and guidance they need to make such a transition?

This is a great question: I wish I had an easy answer! Here are some elements of an answer:

Diversification is a good first step, both in terms of land use on the farm, but also more broadly in terms of livelihoods, just so there is more back-up in case there are shocks.

Currently the government provides price support for just rice and wheat. Reducing support for those crops while providing support for growing a greater variety of crops, and also more drought-tolerant crops such as ragi, bajra, and jowar will be helpful. At the same time, Indian consumers have got used to rice- and wheat-heavy diets, so introducing more traditional crops back into cuisines is needed.

[Then there is] crop insurance. But I think crop insurance should mainly be a ‘stop gap’ measure, and also part of a package of solutions, otherwise it can become a perverse incentive. Biological insurance (diversification), I think, is a better long-term bet.

One of the things I have been asking myself more recently is whether we know what farmers want — instead of trying to come up with solutions, maybe we should be working with them to help them find solutions that are specific to their context. This is harder to do, but may be more meaningful in the long run. Otherwise, we are trying to impose one-size-fits-all solutions uniformly in contexts where they may not work.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, tackle the problem itself, and not the symptoms — we need to deal with climate change. Otherwise, any solution will be a band-aid. Yes, adaptation will be needed, but if we adapt without mitigating, the problem will only get worse.

Are organic farming and small farms part of the solution, especially considering the extent of demand?

I think they can be important parts of the solution. My work shows a lot of context dependency in terms of how different farming systems perform under different conditions. I don’t think organic farming is a silver bullet — if the entire world switches to organic farming, we are still going to continue to have many of the problems we face today. And organic systems also have some important trade-offs — lower productivity and higher prices. But organic farming in conditions where it performs well can be an important part of the solution. Organic has two very big advantages in my mind — first, it pays attention to soil health; and second, it recycles nutrients rather than importing new sources.

Smaller farms do seem to be more productive and have greater biodiversity, but smallholders don’t find it very profitable. But as the majority of farmers are smallholders, and they are poor, it is an important part of our development challenge to support them. In other research that just came out [Ending hunger: Science must stop neglecting smallholder farmers, published in Nature], they [the authors] say that majority of the research being done has no relevance to the problems faced by smallholders.

Your journey from a mechanical engineer from Coimbatore’s PSG College to a researcher on sustainable agriculture and land use covers a wide arc. What were the takeaways and challenges that steered you towards research on sustainable food production?

I would say it’s a mix of privilege, luck, and work. The privilege I had was growing up in a family where both my parents placed education at a premium and sacrificed everything to provide their children with good education and good values. I also am the youngest of three brothers, so by the time I was in college, my family was sufficiently well-off and I had more freedom to pursue my interests than my brothers had. Further, my eldest brother was already in the US and guided me to my graduate education there.

Luck, plenty of it. I happened to read a book on climate change (a gift from one of my brothers) towards the end of my engineering degree, and was intrigued. I applied to 10 graduate programmes in engineering, and three in climate science. I got admitted to zero engineering programmes, but to two master’s programmes in climate science. Then, during the end of my master’s degree, I read about a PhD programme at the University of Wisconsin on ‘Climate, people, and the environment’, which was advertising for a PhD fellowship. Intrigued by the interdisciplinary nature of the name, I applied and went there, wanting to study interactions between climate and vegetation. I did work building global ecosystem models, to couple them with climate models. During that work, my PhD supervisor said these models had no direct human influence, and I should consider studying land use.

Well, the biggest land use on this planet is agriculture. I started thinking about agriculture and food, and that brings me to where I am now.

P Anima

Published on October 16, 2020

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