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.
This story was originally published by Grist. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Half of all humans owe their lives to small farmers, because that's who grows most of the food in Africa and Asia. But it turns out that small farmers in poorer countries are stuck with seeds that can't cope with a rapidly changing climate. A farmer in Illinois facing drought can plant Pioneer's AQUAmax corn, which provides solid yields in dry years.
"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.
The research lab of Google parent Alphabet is studying how to apply artificial intelligence technologies to improve farming. Astro Teller, the head of the research lab, known as X, said that his staff is "spending more time with farmers" to better learn how cutting-edge technology can help improve crop yields. He didn't say that X is close to creating an agricultural moonshot, a term X uses to describe it's research initiatives like Project Loon that is focused on using giant balloons to deliver the Internet to the ground. But he explained that X is now willing to "place more bets" on farm tech based on its preliminary research, which he did not reveal. Teller, speaking Tuesday at MIT Technology Review's EmTech Digital conference in San Francisco, gave the example of tomato farmers who can recognize whether a tomato is ripe or has a mold that could infect nearby plants, but who "cannot walk a thousand acres a day."