MAE RIM, THAILAND – Battling drought, debt and ailments blamed on pesticides, rice farmers in northern Thailand have turned to eco-friendly growing methods despite powerful agribusiness interests in a country that is one of the top exporters of the grain in the world. Walking through a sea of green waist-high stalks, farmer Sunnan Somjak said his fields had been "exhausted" by chemicals, his family regularly felt ill and his profits were too low to make ends meet. But that changed when he joined a pilot agricultural project for the SRI method, which aims to boost yields while shunning pesticides and using less water. "Chemicals can destroy everything," the 58-year-old said, adding that the harvest in his village in Chiang Mai province has jumped 40 percent since employing the new method. There have been health benefits too: "It's definitely better, we don't get sick anymore," he added.
Climate change has condensed the cycles of devastating drought, and agriculture across Africa and the world is feeling the heat. Lack of rain in southern Africa delayed this year's planting season by up to two months. Planted areas have shrunk, crops have wilted and food production in South Africa is already down 25%. Meanwhile, far to the north in Ethiopia, the worst drought in 30 years threatens the food security of more than 10 million people, and in neighboring Somalia, around 3 million people have been hit by crop failures and food shortages. Across Africa and the globe, farmers need tools and technologies that will enable them to adapt to a changing climate.
"Suicides occur due to extreme economic despair," said M.S. Swaminathan, a geneticist whose work on high-yield rice and wheat crops helped drive India's Green Revolution in the 1960s. His research in the late 1980s found that a 1 degree C (1.8 degree F) temperature rise reduced a crop's duration by about one week, causing losses in the overall weight of harvest. His foundation works to find farming solutions not only to rising heat, but also to drought or salinity from coastal sea rise. Given these growing risks, he said, government policy has a large role to play.
"Gender and climate are inextricably linked," said environmentalist and author Katharine Wilkinson on stage at TEDWomen last week, a gathering of women thought leaders and activists in Palm Desert, California. Women, she says, are disproportionately affected by climate change. When communities are decimated by floods or droughts, tsunamis or fire, the most vulnerable among them suffer the most. Because women across the world have fewer rights, less money, and fewer freedoms, in those moments of extreme loss, women are often hit the hardest. "There's greater risk of displacement, higher odds of being injured or killed during a natural disaster. Prolonged drought can precipitate early marriage, as families contend with scarcity. Floods can force last-resort prostitution as women struggle to make ends meet. These dynamics are most acute under conditions of poverty," she says.
Agriculture is always modernizing, but most farmers struggle to collect data that's useful--or to analyze it in useful ways. That's changing: emerging tools for data collection and analysis are helping boost yields and make farming more sustainable, according to Sam Eathington, chief science officer at the Climate Corporation. In the next five to 10 years, "we're going to see an explosion of sensors and collection of data from the farm," Eathington said during his talk at MIT Technology Review's EmTech conference today. The Climate Corporation--originally founded in 2006 by a pair of former Google employees and now owned by German chemical giant Bayer--has developed tools to gather information from a variety of sources, including sensors on farming equipment as well as in the field. The data from these disparate sensors is then analyzed in the cloud.