Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Agrometeorology – Current Demands and Future Challenges

Agrometeorology has advanced over decades from a descriptive to a quantitative science using physical and biological principles. Now, the challenge is to balance the continuing need for increased productivity with new and growing concerns about climate change, climate variability and the associated environmental impacts. The farming community in India especially is becoming more and more aware of the weather and its impact on the crop at different phenological stages. During this decade farmers’ awareness also increased substantiallyabout the increasing and efficient agrometeorological services mainly weather-based agroadvisory services.Business community is now gearing up its activities based on monthly weather forecast along with the agroadvisories and it needs to be addressed immediately by the Agrometeorologists. Decision Support System with major focus on pest and diseases based on simple thumb rules for various export potential crops including some cash crops and horticultural crops needs to be developed. Another demand and future challenge is to help the Agricultural insurance sector which plays a pivotal role in settling the farmers’ claims.It becomes absolutely necessary to provide research, monitoring and advisory services to the farming community to miminize the weather related or influenced losses and maximize the production through early fore-warning systems regarding possible pests/diseases incidence, their remedial actions etc. Another important area viz., weather based commodity trading is gaining fast momentum which needs specific attention.It is time that the climate and weather should be looked as a resource but not as a hazard only.Public Private Participatory approach is fast emerging asan efficient and effective way for some of the out-reach programs in agriculture sector. Probably, it is the holistic approach integrating soil, weather and physiological aspects of crops with remote sensing/GIS techniques that may address these emerging issues in the next two decades which stands a great challenge to the Agrometeorologists. As an attempt to meet the future challenges, one step forward could be introduction of some of the weather based agribusiness topics in the curriculum of Agrometeorology.

India is an agrarian based country and hence agriculture plays a significant role in the overall socio-economic fabric of India. Weather becomes more significant in crop management and an expert knowledge of past, present and future weather will help to solve a host of other problems.  It is a known fact that the success of farming is intimately related to the prevailing weather conditions and quantitative information much in advance would become necessary to predict/assess the yields to a great accuracy. Agriculture remains one of the few areas for which accurate short-term and extended-period forecasts can create a material benefit. There is an urgent need to integrate the weather forecast with a real time decision support system leading directly to solutions/services to the farmers which eventually help the farmers in saving their crop from all possible losses.

It is a well-known fact that most of the farmers are adversely affected by climate risks in their farming, which include increase in temperature, decrease in rainy days, increase in precipitation intensity and amount, shorter winter periods, decreased ground water availability, increased occurrence of drought and floods, increased duration of water logging etc. which in turn result in yield losses.Farmers, often with the support of other machinery have been trying to adapt to these climate risks in different ways while only few of them are aware of the crop insurance and its benefits though the awareness is increasing very fast. Most of these adaptations are technological often pushed or promoted by research and extension agencies involved in agriculture like changing the date of planting, cultivating new paddy varieties that can better tolerate water-logging, introducing new crops/diversification to vegetables and adopting SRI (Systems of Rice Intensification) in paddy etc.  The present paper gives a brief note about some of the services and agencies that arelooking for agrometeorologists for holistic approach. The current demands as well as future challenges in each of them are emphasized. 

 Weather influences agriculture in a profound way. Despite the technological advances, Indian farmers are mostly dependent on seasonal rains which are highly variable in time and space. If farmers have advance information about the probable occurrence of events such as depressions, drought, storms, floods and heat waves in their geographical locations, the impact of these events on farmers’ livelihood can be reduced to a great extent. Thus weather forecasts are of great importance to agricultural activities Much research has gone into characterization of various crop environments, quantification of crop-weather interactions in relation to crop yield, crop weather modeling and crop-pest-weather dynamics. It is time to consolidate these findings in different locations, make use of this information and reach the farmers through agroadvisories on a larger scale in a more realistic way. At present, the India Meteorological Department in collaboration with the State Agricultural Universities is giving the Integrated Agromet Advisory Services which include weather forecast coupled with expert advises on crop planning, disease and pest incidences as well as different farm operations like fertilizer, pesticide applications etc. in developing timely weather based agro-advisories. These weather based agro-advisories can be used to take up prophylactic plant protection measures, fertilizer application, irrigation scheduling etc. These can also be used to take up appropriate measures in day to day field operations to minimize the risk involved in agricultural production (Rathore and ParvinderMaini, 2008).
A lot needs to be done to make these advisories more and more farmer-friendly. It is time that the Agrometeorologists respond to the urgent/pressing needs/demands of the farmers who insist on receiving a more accurate forecast along with actionable agroadvisories. Block level forecast is the need of the hour and the farmers are looking for location specific accurate short, medium and long term forecasts which will eventually help them in proper planning of the crops, varieties, sowing schedules and other farm operations for minimizing the yield losses leading to a higher grain/seed yields.
For real-time forewarnings in agrometeorology, the reliability of regular, specialized information along with the real-time crop status is critical. Agrometeorological decision-making in agricultural operations for healthy crops or crops endangered by pests, diseases and/or other environmental disasters needs weather forecasting and climate prediction, where that is possible, to the required accuracies(Blench, 1999).Use of advisories by progressiveand medium size farmers  related to accurate predictions of sowing date, timing of irrigation and fertilizer use strategies, is slowly on the rise.Crop-weather models that are mainly used for operational yield forecasting and prediction of phenological development have been generated for a large number of crops in our country (Aggarwal et al, 1997, 2005and2006).They have different degrees of complexities and many of these models need to be further refined and tested before widespread practical application may be expected. Current research is being focused on detailed soil–water–crop relationships, determining the adjusted crop genetic coefficients, bridging simulation model outputs with user needs for applications, and developing practical decision support systems. The results of these findings may be of immense utility and form an important component of the decision support system which when coupled with the crop status on a regional scale would go a long way to alleviate the farmers’ problems to a great extent. 
Recent field survey in some parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Chhattisgarh  revealed that there is presently still a considerable gap between the information needed by poor, small-scale farmers and that is presently available (Skymet,2012-personal communication).
For a vigorous plant growth and rich harvest, satellite based remote sensing-aided weather based agro-advisories may be a promising way which would enable the farmers to take the most appropriate actions on real time basis, at a regional scale. Satellite remote sensing technology is increasingly gaining recognition as an important source of many agricultural applications as it is superior to the traditional methods in terms of accuracy and saving of time (Fig.1).  In addition, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology is becoming an essential tool for combining various maps and satellite information sources in models that simulate the interactions of complex natural systems. 

This will not only help in planning, advising and monitoring the status of the crops but also will help in responding quickly for taking immediate planning or remedial actions.  Planning for seeds distribution, fertilizer supply/requirements, supplying/relocating of sowing/harvesting equipment, procurement of crop from mandies/markets, etc., can be tackled effectively through information derived using these technologies.

Apart from benefitting the farmers, these services would help the Tractor manufacturers and farm machinery manufacturers to make tactical decisions on movement of their farming machinery (like tractor-driven combined harvesters etc.). Also water pump motor companies in deciding about need based supply or deploying the appropriate Horse Power motors to different locations. It is needless to emphasis the underlying fact that all these are challenges that the Agrometeorologists are required to meet right now. 

Fig 1: Flow diagram for integration of remote sensing aided weather-based agroadvisories

Crop insurance is one of the main non-structural mechanisms used to reduce risk in farming. A farmer who insures his crop is guaranteed a certain level of crop yield or income, which is equivalent, for instance, to 60 or 70 per cent of the long-term average. If, for reasons beyond the farmer’s control and in spite of adequate management decisions, the yield drops below the guarantee, the farmer is paid by the insurer a sum equivalent to his loss, at a price agreed before planting.
Crop insurance schemes can be implemented relatively easily when there is sufficient spatial variability of an environmental stress (such as with hail), but they remain extremely difficult to implement for some of the major damaging factors, such as drought, which typically affect large areas.
One of the basic tools for insurance companies is risk analysis (Abbaspour, 1994; Decker, 1997). Crop forecasting models play a central part, when run with historical data, they provide insight into the variability patterns of yield (WMO, 2010) Technical Bulletin 134.
The first crop insurance program in the country was introduced in 1972-73 by the ‘General Insurance’ Department of Life Insurance Corporation of India on H-4 cotton in Gujarat. Later, the then newly set up General Insurance Corporation of India took over the experimental scheme and subsequently included Groundnut, Wheat and Potato and implemented in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and West Bengal.Professor V. M. Dandekar, often referred to as the “Father of Crop Insurance in India”, suggested an alternate “Homogeneous Area approach” for crop insurance in the mid-seventies.                                                               
After continuous evolution, the Comprehensive Crop Insurance Scheme (CCIS) was introduced with effect from 1stApril 1985 by the Government of India with the active participation of State Governments.The implementation and administration of crop insurance schemes, which were being done by General Insurance Corporation of India (GIC), was taken over by Agriculture Insurance Company of India Ltd. (AIC) since its commencement of business from 1st April 2003.
It is imperative that crop yield hence the crop insurance are closely related and dependent on prevailing weather conditions during the entire crop growth cycle. The Agrometeorologists not only make use of the weather forecast but also should be able to estimate the likelihood of unusual weather events and their potential impact on every single farmer’s fields/crops (quantitative analysis), which will be a great challenge.  This creates a great hope that insurance policies based on clever weather based analytics will one day also protect Indian farmers against the vagaries of the weather.
In many rural areas, disaster often strikes poor farmers hard, forcing them to make choices that drag their families deeper into poverty. To survive, they might have to sell their tools for cash to buy food, or take their children out of schools to save on fees. With weather insurance, farmers can protect the investment they make in their crops, and feel confident in taking out loans for fertilizer and better seeds to improve their harvests. (Brian Kahn,IRI,2012).
Now the Agri-insurance companies including some private banks are looking forward for weather based agroadvisories to be disseminated through SMS or Voice mail to the end users (farmers) apart from assessing the exact yield at individual Grampanchayat / village level for their judicious payouts. 
Agricultural commodities are those which are living things grown by farmers or ranchers, or, in some cases, such things which have been minimally processed. Agricultural commodities are often referred to as soft commodities to distinguish them from metals, energy and other non-agricultural commodities.There are many factors that can impact the supply of commodities like weather, acreage covered, production strikes, crop pests/diseases and technology. Given a particular locality or region, the produce is totally dependent on the weather more so when they are rainfed crops. There are a handful of grains and meat which make up the core of agricultural commodity trading while other agricultural commodities include rape seed, milk, cocoa, coffee, sugar, frozen orange juice concentrate, and cotton. Livestock include hogs, pork bellies and cattle. These commodities are traded in a variety of different grades and types, and there are other exchange-traded agricultural commodities.

A farmer would like a guaranteed minimum return and would prefer money now over money later. A purchaser would like to plan on a maximum price for an agricultural product now and so has an incentive to mitigate the risk of a price rise at harvest time. Commodities markets were established in the ancient world in rice and other grains. Supply and demand and unpredictable market conditions have always added price volatility to agricultural commodities markets, and trading and hedging techniques have been developed over long periods of time to help everyone in the market manage their risk.While spot trading, with physical inspection and delivery does take place, most trading in financial markets is done through futures contracts. A futures contract is an agreement between a producer and purchaser that a transaction for a certain quantity of a specific commodity will take place at a future date and at a particular price. This smooths out the volatility for both parties and provides liquidity to the market. Weather forecast thus has an important role to play in the trading. The trading community is looking forward to get the medium, long range and seasonal forecast for this speculation of output of the commodities.
Advance knowledge of the likely volume of future harvests is a crucial factor in the market. Prices fluc­tuate as a function of the expected production with a large psychologi­cal component.
In fact, prices depend more on the production that the traders anticipate than on actual production. Accurate forecasts are, therefore, a useful planning tool. They can also often act as a mechanism to reduce speculation and the associated price fluctua­tions, an essential factor in the availability of food to many poor people.
In India, prior to the introduction of commodity futures market, the commodity prices were found to have experienced high volatility. With the introduction of the commodity futures market in India in 2005, it was expected that weather shocks should have had smooth transmission on the general price levels.
Economic wellbeing of farmers is going to become better if Agro-market advice facility is provided and thereby the standard of living of the farmers shall increase. This facility will actually help the farmers to know the prices for their products in and around them so that they can take their products to these places for their better market price.
Lot of research has been done in various aspects of agrometeorology and it is time to consolidate the results and translate them to actionable weather based agroadvisories. The Agrometeorologists not only make use of the weather prediction but also should be able to estimate the likelihood of unusual weather events and their potential impact on every single farmer’s fields/crops (quantitative analysis), which will be a great challenge.  This creates a great hope that insurance policies based on clever weather based analytics will one day also protect Indian farmers against the vagaries of the weather. The farming as well as the trading community is looking forward for the weather-based crop produce status coupled with market information which is need of the hour and more and more such value added information to the agroadvisories will definitely improve the farmers’ financial status leading to their ultimate prosperity. Satellite based remote sensing-aided weather based agro-advisories may be a promising way which would enable the farmers to take the most appropriate actions on real time basis, at a regional scale. The agrometeorologists need to gear up to meet the future demands of the country. 

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