Business

Climate change can be challenged with ‘mindset change’

By Yakuta Dawood

Climate change certainly needs no introduction as its impact falls upon each and every human being on this planet. However, with the ongoing extreme weather events that are continuously slamming at our doors, the focal point is now shifting towards the agriculture sector that faces consequences due to the acute climate-induced drought incidents.

Reflecting upon the recent report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres said the report published is a “Code Red for Humanity” as the Earth is at imminent risk of hitting 1.5 degrees in the near term, also stressing that “we must act decisively now to keep 1.5 alive”.

Taking this warning in the Sri Lankan context, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC), in collaboration with the Australian Government-funded Market Development Facility (MDF), hosted a webinar to reflect on the measures that could be adapted with regard to climate change for agribusinesses operating in the country, whilst also increasing awareness on the risks posed by climate change to the business models of this industry.

Delivering the opening remark, Australian Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Amanda Jewell stated that Sri Lanka has been increasingly facing the consequences of climate change at varying levels in the recent past, with challenges including high temperature, change in rainfalls, and extreme weather events like floods, landslides, etc.

“Sri Lanka needs to adapt to the rapid global shift towards sustainability to remain competitive, for which the MDF is actively supporting this transition. Sustainability has become an essential cornerstone for building the resilience of our businesses and investments. Therefore, entering the global market with sustainable products is now crucial for ensuring Sri Lanka’s economic recovery post Covid-19,” Jewell noted.

Commenting on the same report published by IPCC, Dilmah Tea Company PLC Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dilhan Fernando highlighted that even though Sri Lanka is predicted to be a little lower than the global average in terms of agricultural temperature rise, there are still significant threats that could result due to climate change.

He explained that the threat would have the greatest impact on the poorest, most marginalised individuals, exacerbating poverty and inequality, and then resulting in social issues that may ultimately have a destabilising effect on business as well as the country.

“Agriculture is one of the most significant sectors of Sri Lanka, so when you frame that existing issue in the context of the fact that globally climate change is expected to reduce crop yields by between 10-25% by the end of the century, we can clearly see we have a very serious issue relating not only to food security and export economy, but also to social instability that could be the result of the weakening rural economy,” D. Fernando highlighted.

How can the uprising issue be challenged?

The significant influence that could occur due to extreme climate change is very clear, not just agriculturally but also in social and economical aspects.

Speaking in this regard, D. Fernando stressed that the most fundamental change that needs to take place in society is embracing and changing the “mindset” in handling agribusiness, rather than trying to dominate the nature by using artificial inputs, as alternative solutions are available like agroforestry, different types of mediation (for example, using the opportunity in blue carbon), and enhancing organic matter in soil, all the while building resilience against climate change.

“We have the tools, we have the technology, we have the knowledge of centuries passed down by our ancestors. We have every single element we need, like sensor-based agriculture, abundance of natural solutions, and other solutions to mitigate the problem. Yes, there are certain aspects that cannot be controlled, like rising sea levels, but we can address the impact of social instability, economic instability, and food security that would create the worst possible scenarios we see in IBCC,” he added.

Meanwhile, John Keells Holdings PLC (JKH) President – Retail Charitha Subasinghe, speaking at the webinar, also mentioned that the mindset change is the most important and relevant solution to the uprising climate change challenge, as people are dependant on the thought of Sri Lanka being blessed with unlimited resources, resulting in not thinking differently.

“Over time, the quality of the Sri Lankan crop has come down, leading to wastage and unhappy customers over the other end. The average price of the basket has increased, inflation has risen, the quality of what we consume has deteriorated, and failures of certain crops have been experienced. We are having a problem, but mindset change is the biggest challenge for the entire nation,” he emphasised.

Besides, he noted that as a corporate industry operating in Sri Lanka, the approach of overcoming the current challenges was to do with taking control of the situation, like practising trails of new approaches, rather than just leaving it to elements that already exist in the market.

According to Subasinghe, every time the company has trialled a new strategy, they have benefited from the approach; for instance, right now the usage of water has reduced by 50%, the pest problem has reduced by about 60-70%, and the yields have increased by 25% due to the measures taken.

Measures taken by corporates operating in agri field

Sharing insights into the measures taken by Aitken Spence Plantation Managements PLC in overcoming the challenges existing due to climate change, Managing Director Rohan Fernando stated that the company has been mainly focusing its attention on rainwater harvesting in the recent past.

However, along with that, Aitken Spence is also taking measures to reduce the application of chemicals used by almost 80% and supplementing them with cultural mechanical and biological methods, has increased green cover in all of their plantations for better water retention, is using renewable energy, is planting bamboo whilst also educating the employees on rainwater harvesting.

Expressing similar thoughts, D. Fernando stated that in Dilmah Tea, they have looked at collaborative activities like bringing academia into the equation to resolve the issue. The other measures include setting up a climate change research facility as well as looking at new systems like agroforestry, fertilises that are more climate-friendly, sensor-based solutions to address the need to be more responsive and efficient in response to agricultural issues in plantation, involving the community in reforestation in agroforestry, and crop diversification because of biodiversity, soil regeneration, and irrigation.

Further, Ceylon Biscuits Ltd. (CBL) Group Managing Director (MD) Shea Wickramasingha also took the opportunity to discuss the measures taken by the company to curtail the climate change problem. But as per her expertise, Sri Lanka has very poor infrastructure, which impacts the whole value chain of the industry.

Commenting on the measures taken by CBL, Wickramasingha said the approaches taken by the company include the backward integration model, mythological weather information on the field, water irrigation, and technology to take appropriate action at the right time.

“While the challenges are there, if we give people the tools and the infrastructure, we can overcome a lot of challenges,” she added.

Conclusion

Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector contributes to 7.8% of GDP with approximately 29% of the country’s labour force employed in the sector, providing livelihoods to 70% of the rural population. As per official data, the sector in the past decade has contributed to both the domestic food requirement and about $ 2.5 billion in export proceeds on average.

As the private sector has taken measures to curtail the issue pertaining to climate change, the Government of Sri Lanka is also in the drive to implement policies for a sustainable future ahead, one such recent measure taken being the ban on chemical fertilisers and encouraging the use of organic fertilisers for crop cultivation.

Co-cabinet Spokesman Dr. Ramesh Pathirana this week announced that a total of Rs. 3.8 billion has been utilised to purchase organic fertiliser from local producers during the next Maha cultivation season, while also importing nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to further enrich organic fertilisers.

Giving a concluding remark at the webinar, International Water Management Institute Principal Researcher and RGL – Disaster Risk Management and Climate Resilience Dr. Giriraj Amarnath stated: “It is imperative that agribusinesses are aware of the impacts of climate change and are equipped to adapt. This is important, not only for safeguarding the planet and its resources, but also to ensure that Sri Lankan businesses stay globally competitive and continue to support the livelihoods of Sri Lankan men and women who depend on agriculture for their livelihood.”