08 Nov, 2019

Climate, Food, Society and Migration: the Asian Connection

by Alessandro Balduzzi

Asia’s impressive growth rests on the shoulders of millions of smallholder farmers, each working on land two hectares or smaller. Still, their fundamental contribution to the regional economy has been progressively undermined by two huge challenges at least. 

First, the need to cope with a massive demographic increase in a continent whose population has topped four billion inhabitants. Second, the decreasing productivity triggered by climate change. These two phenomena form a potentially tragic juxtaposition: the lower the productivity, the harder the effort to be undertaken in order to keep the pace with the demographic boom. That is why the need for productivity increase has become more and more urgent, fostering the development of new technologies.

Among the side effects of climate change, the spreading of insects and parasites represents a potentially lethal threat for agriculture in Asia. To identify and annihilate pests which could destroy most crops is an issue of utter importance in rice-producing countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. 

The Better Rice Initiative Asia project tackled successfully this issue providing farmers with the theoretical and practical tools to identify dangerous insects and diseases and stop their growth as soon as possible. With minimal risk for people and the environment, the approach promoted by the Better Rice Initiative Asia proved to be extremely effective and enabled the production to increase by 18%. 

This was possible thanks to the adoption of techniques of accurate pest monitoring and spotting. Through these methods, farmers are now able to know exactly when and how to use pesticides, which contributes to both an overall reduction in their utilization and preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems.

Another critical region where climate change numbers among the factors undermining agricultural production is the swathe of land known as Eastern Gangetic Plains. The latter stretches across India, Nepal and Bangladesh and is home to around 300 million people. Here, climate change-related droughts, floods and cyclones have concurred to make agriculture less attractive and riskier. 

Economic uncertainty linked to the uncertainty of agriculture in itself also concurred to increasing the costs of fuel, fertilizer and irrigation equipment. A chain of negative factors which not only undermines food security in the region but also nourishes migration flows and gender role shifting.

Whilst men are leaving their plots of land seeking for fortune in the cities, women have been increasingly taking the burden of agriculture. This change involves female workers, smallholders and tenant, mostly from lower castes. This does not mean that women stopped being responsible for cooking, cleaning or child-raising. 

On the contrary, they keep being in charge for everyday household tasks whilst taking on new agricultural tasks such as sowing, working with irrigation system or purchasing seeds. Unlike weeding or harvesting, the aforementioned activities are not usually carried out by women when their husbands, fathers or brothers are around. 

Even though their wider involvement in agriculture means more power in decision-making at a household and community level to women, a culture based on patriarchy prevents them from enjoying the same access to resources like water as men usually do. 

In other words, women play a more and more important economic role on the ground which social institutions fail to recognize. A conservative attitude which limit not only their emancipation but also hinders their contribution to the survival of agriculture. With agricultural production at risk, food security is equally undermined and male out-migration finds new pushing factors.

In spite of being fairly different from each other, these two examples from rice farmers fighting pest in Vietnam and Thailand and women in agriculture in the Ganges basin illustrate well how Asia – together with Africa – is the field where the future of our planet is decided. Climate, food, migration and social issues are tightly intertwined in this region of the world where change is ongoing as fast as anywhere else.