February 1, 2012

Foreign policy, food security, and climate change

President Johnson visiting the International Rice Research Institute in 1966. Related video here.

I recently submitted a fellowship proposal where I framed my research in terms of National Security. This is part of my proposal.

Foreign policy between the U.S. and India has evolved around Indian food security since 1946, beginning with an era of grain exports from the fertile U.S. Midwest to famine-stricken India [1]. The twin problems of overpopulation and Communism in India provoked U.S. responses, foremost President Johnson’s Food for Peace program in 1959. From 1965-1966, President Johnson and his national security advisers used the Food for Peace program as a bargaining tool with India to promote a transition from food aid to self-sufficient Indian grain production [2]. This coincided with efforts by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and private foundations to overhaul India’s agricultural research infrastructure and the transfer of new agricultural technologies [1]

The confluence of foreign policy and scientific advances led to the highly productive agricultural system of northwestern India from the 1970s to present; this is known as the Green Revolution. Today, the yield gains of last century’s Green Revolution have now stagnated. A convergence of demographic, ecological, and climate factors threaten India’s agricultural yields and food security. By 2030, northwest India may once again become food insecure, threatening the political stability of this region [3]. My research will focus on how climate change is impacting food security in northwest India, and the capacity of agricultural research to address climate change adaptation.

Northwest India is historically important for international agricultural science, and today faces the new threat of climate change. My research will examine both the institutional and technological dimensions of climate adaptation in agriculture. Technologies such as climate-tolerant crop varieties are invoked as future solutions to counter new climate constraints on crop yields [4]. Yet in an agricultural research system that is diverse and has inevitable time lags for crop variety development, it is uncertain whether the existing research system has the capacity to address new, highly uncertain global challenges like climate change. My research will critically assess the capacity of agricultural research to address climate change adaptation in northwest India, particularly in the state of Haryana.

Regardless of current climate change mitigation efforts, agriculture must adapt to an uncertain climate future. India’s ability to adapt to climate change is crucial to U.S. national security. The U.S. military calls climate change a “threat multiplier” to existing foreign policy tensions: exacerbating food insecurity and political instability especially when food prices rise sharply [5,6]. India itself faces several national security threats due to climate change and food insecurity, from Bangladeshi climate refugees to water resource-based conflict along the Pakistan border [7]. Indian agriculture is especially vulnerable to climate change, and scholars warn that the Green Revolution style of agriculture lacks resilience to climate pressures and shocks [3,4].

My research is particularly focused on sustainable development, and how agricultural innovation can support resilient local economies, gender equity, and local democracy. Sustainable development is increasingly intertwined with “climate smart” development: development that is sensitive to both climate mitigation and adaptation goals. Indian agriculture is tied to rural livelihoods, and climate change can compound existing gender and income disparities [8]. Leichenko and O’Brien call this the “double exposure” model [9]. I experienced these overlapping factors during a three-month internship in Bangladesh in 2008. While working for a non-governmental organization, I studied farmers’ adoption of a new hybrid rice variety. I interviewed male and female farmers and found that many scientists and policy-makers (wrongly) assumed that women did not farm rice; thus excluding women from education about hybrid rice and access to agricultural inputs. My research will examine the how agricultural research systems address sustainable development goals through climate change adaptation.

[1] J.H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997).
[2] K. Ahlberg, Diplomatic History 31, 4 (2007).
[3] N. Chhetri, P. Chaudhary, Journal of Disaster Research 6, 5 (2011).
[4] S.J. Vermeulen et al., Environmental Science & Policy 15, 1 (2012).
[5] F. Morring, Aviation Week & Space Technology 166, 16 (2007).
[6] R. Naylor, W. Falcon, Population and Development Review 36, 4 (2010).
[7] N. Pai, The Indian National Interest Policy Brief no. 1 (2008).
[8] K.L. O’Brien, et al. Global Environmental Change 14, 4 (2004).
[9] R.M. Leichenko, K.L. O’Brien, Environmental Change and Globalization: Double Exposures. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008).

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