Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Hybrid Rice Or Compost?

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Farmers in Thailand and Indonesia are experimenting with new and old techniques to respond to the challenges of climate change.

Water and wind, sun and soil – the fate of farmers on this planet depends on them. And when it changes, it directly impacts their livelihood. Farmers are, thus, particularly affected by climate change and its effects on weather patterns and phenomena.

The December 2010 issue of Asian Horizons, a newsletter by the Strategic Foresight Group (, takes a look at the impact of global warming on small farmers in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia and at how people and governments there are trying to adapt to it. In addition, the issue examines a variety of other recent developments in Asia: among them, India’s new health insurance scheme, the Vietnamese labour market and indoor air pollution in Bangladesh.

In Thailand, weather patterns will become increasingly erratic in the next 20-30 years. For a large section of rice farmers in the country adapting to climate change is, thus, a vital necessity to ensure their livelihood and the survival of their families. Drier spells in the middle of the wet season could damage young plants, while floods at the end of the wet season could affect harvesting.

Thailand cultivates around 9 million hectares of rice and produces 28-30 million tons of paddy every year for both the domestic and foreign market. This makes it the leading rice exporter in the world. Rice farming thereby provides the livelihood for over 3.7 million Thai families, that are 66 percent of all farming families in the country

For them one option to ensure sufficient crop yield in the face of the challenges posed by the changing climate is the introduction of hybrid variants. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, they yield about 15-20 percent more than even the best of the improved or high yielding varieties ( Hybrid rice could, thus, play a decisive role for improving food security and the Thai government has made them available. Yet, the majority of the country’s farmers cannot afford to buy these variants as they simply don’t have the financial means to pay the prices set by private companies.

Thai rice farmers are, therefore, experimenting with a series of new and old techniques in cropping and farming to avoid crop yield losses in the face of the impact of climate change: They are changing cropping patterns, adjusting the harvesting calendar and improving farm management.

In the Khon Kean province in the Northeast of the country, small farmers have begun to introduce mono crop cassava or sugarcane as an addition to their rice production. A second crop helps, of course, spreading the risk, particularly with respect to price fluctuations. Ups and downs in the price of rice are common especially because drought has become more frequent in recent years.

While droughts are one problem, a higher frequency of floods remains another peril of global warming. In the North and Northeast regions of Thailand, where 70 percent of the country’s farmers make their living, over 20 percent of the farmers lose their entire crop due to flash floods.

The farmers in the Na Dok Mai village in Northeastern Thailand have adopted a particularly effective strategy to overcome this challenge. They have begun planting crops both in flood plains and on higher grounds. The floods still affect the production in the plains, but the remaining yields help reducing the overall loss of the farmer.

In order to increase crop yields and decrease expenses, Thai farmers have also started to resort to compost instead of pesticides and fertilizers. Asian Horizons estimates that rice yields in 2040 will indeed be better compared to 2020 due to the frequent use of compost on farms.

These are just a few examples of techniques and methods that some Thai farmers have adopted to help them avoid heavy crop yield losses in the face of climate change. Introduced elsewhere they hold, however, potential benefits for a large section of small farmers in Thailand and other countries. This requires, of course, education.

How it could be done, examines another article in the December issue of Asian Horizons that looks at a state programme in Indonesia which fosters agricultural education and food security.

In East Nusa Tenggara, the government has recently initiated a food reliance programme, the “Desa Mandiri Pangan” (“Village Food Self-Reliance”) programme. The province is one of the poorest and driest in Indonesia and, since 2005, also counts as one of the most food insecure. Around 89 percent of the population works in farming, fishing or livestock-raising and nearly one quarter lives below the poverty line.

The programme aims at community empowerment to tackle food insecurity and supports self-sufficiency. Over a period of four years, the Indonesian National Agency for Food Security will implement this programme in every village in the province and focus particularly on improving production techniques and access: It will equip farmers with knowledge ranging from land preparation to post-harvest.

As in Thailand, weather patterns in Indonesia are expected to become increasingly volatile in the next decades. This exacerbates the already tense food situation in East Nusa Tenggara where food shortages are likely to get worse. The cropping systems in the region are primarily dependent on rainfall which is very irregular in the province as a whole. Better knowledge and techniques, as it is fostered by the “Desa Mandiri Pangan” programme, allows farmers to be better equipped to deal with adverse and changing conditions in weather and climate and, thus, failing crops and food insecurity.

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