WHEN I was in New Delhi on Nov. 10, 2022 to receive the “1st MS Swaminathan Global Leadership Award for Sustainable Development 2022,” I was invited to deliver a keynote speech during the Climate Change Forum of the awarding event, which was part of the India International Agro Trade and Technology Fair-AgroWorld 2022 organized by the Indian Chamber for Food and Agriculture.
Climate change is one of the subjects I have written about extensively for The Manila Times and talked about many times in my speaking engagements. And I always find something new or innovative to discuss about the effects of climate change on the local and global food system, and the solutions to lessen or eliminate the impact of extreme weather events on the agriculture sector.
Before I was invited to New Delhi, I was invited to attend and deliver a speech at the World Food Forum in Rome during the second week of October. In my keynote speech in Rome, I mentioned the three Cs rocking food security worldwide: first, the Covid-19 pandemic — mentioned foremost because of its immediate effects on the global food supply chain. The second C is climate change and the third is conflicts, primarily the Russia-Ukraine war.
It was in my keynote speech in New Delhi where I said that while conflict is the third C I mentioned, it is no less the third priority. The same goes for climate change as not being a second priority because I mentioned it as No. 2 on the list of the three Cs. I must also state that among the three Cs I mentioned, we have fought climate change the longest. And while we have built more long-term commitments around it and to combat climate change, and invested billions of dollars to mitigate its effects, we are still in the midst of a battle against it.
Sooner or later, the Covid-19 pandemic will be gone and life will go back to the pre-pandemic ways with, of course, lessons learned. The Russia-Ukraine conflict can also end soon as one or both protagonists will get tired of fighting.
But climate change? I hate to say this but there are quarters saying humanity is fast losing the battle against it, and that time is running out.
Also, it is the smallholders in agriculture that are among that suffer the most from climate change. In developing countries like India and the Philippines, smallholders account for almost 90 percent of food production.
When I was Agriculture secretary, I have witnessed numerous times how a single typhoon could reverse incomes from harvests, with the smallholders taking the biggest losses. Every typhoon, when not judiciously coupled with advanced weather forecasts, advisory for early harvests and the foresight of adjusting cropping calendars, could bring damage of more than a billion pesos each time.
Worse, indigenous smallholders, many of whom champion sustainable and environmental farming, continue to be marginalized in their operations.
Hence, it has become rather clear, in a country prone to natural disasters such as the Philippines, that this was not a sustainable way to live.
Meanwhile, carbon footprint in commercial agricultural operations remains stark and indelible — the global agriculture industry retains the notoriety of producing roughly a fourth of total greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.
Still, we find that climate investments are lagging compared to renewable energy investments.
Political will needed
Given the challenges the global food system faces from extreme weather events, agricultural leadership, armed by political will, must be underscored. This, I believe, is a better armor of sustainability against climate change, than the soft lip service of ESG or environmental, social and corporate governance principles.
Hence, climate justice should account for the most vulnerable. This will require a new moral order protecting younger generations and smallholder farmers, which takes more thought and intellectual rigor than the vague accounting of carbon taxes and incentives.
Also, agricultural scientists, in the face of climate change denials, could expect to run into skepticism against innovations to deal with extreme weather events. This means that at this point, our posture toward research and innovation deserves scrutiny, and the youth and smallholder farmers are speaking or even crying for help. That much is clear in most global fora with world leaders in attendance, including the one in New Delhi. In such high-level talks, public accountability takes center stage or should take center stage.
There is also a need for climate politics to take the shape of survival as incomes and dietary needs of the global population are threatened by climate change.
I ended my keynote speech in New Delhi by saying that the forum should enjoin all in the privileged stratum of policy making and technological, economic and social influence, to be forthright in the collective efforts and solutions when addressing climate change.
Also, I emphasized that we all cross into the ongoing agricultural revolution of this era with the honor of saving our children from hunger and planetary destruction.
For the Philippines
In the Philippines, I have seen a rush and clamor for the wider adoption of renewable energy, which is good. The sad thing, though, is I do not see the same fervor for the agriculture sector, including from the bureaucracy, to make the Philippine food system more resilient to the effects of extreme weather events. And the damage done in the past decades by storms, heavy rains and droughts on the country’s agriculture system have been evident. In fact, very evident. Furthermore, the hardest hit are the smallholders.
Ironically, almost all the solutions to make the country’s agriculture sector more resilient are already there, like “low-tech” approaches such as rainwater impounding and harvesting, and aquifer recharging; forward-thinking approaches like adjusting the planting calendar and early harvesting before a storm; available and under development variants of crops that can thrive in flooded and drought conditions; and reforestation and watershed rehabilitation.
Of more importance, however, is political will to make the Philippine food system more resilient to climate change. And should politicians wait for the day when climate change becomes a very thorny issue, especially during the polls?
“Wala tayo magawa kasi malakas ang bagyo (We cannot do anything because the typhoon was strong)” and similar excuses from politicians or policymakers will no longer be bought by smallholders in the future if they see their farms get ravaged during typhoons or droughts.