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Sociological Impact of Climate Change on South Asian Agriculture

Philip Freund
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045


Anthropogenic (man-made) climate change is a pressing issue in the 21st century. Since the industrial revolution, atmospheric greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide [CO2], methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases) levels have spiked (Change 2007). Greenhouse gases absorb solar radiation that is reflected off of the surface of the earth, and are commonly emitted in the burning of fossil fuels for the purpose of transportation, agriculture, industry, and land use change. Essentially, modern human activities have increased the levels of greenhouse gases in recent years, resulting in an increase in atmospheric temperatures due to the absorption of solar radiation by these gases.


The impact of climate change is often region-dependent. In arid Asia (including Pakistan, northern India, and western China) temperatures are projected to increase more rapidly than in temperate or tropical Asia (Preston et al. 2006). Additionally, climate change can impact diverse facets of the biosphere and human society in different ways. For example, climate change is projected to be deleterious to human coastal communities in Asia and the Pacific, but much less harmful for forestry ecosystem services elsewhere. The intention of this paper is to explore the impact that climate change may have on tropical and south Asian agriculture, focusing on crop yields and the sociological impact of changes to crop yields. First, the direct effects of climate change (including atmospheric CO2 levels and temperature) on crop yield will be examined. Next, the potential sociological impacts of a reduction to crop yields will be discussed. Adaptation to reduced crop yields will be examined in the context of commercial modern industrial agriculture and the impact changes related to this might have on south Asian farmers. Several theories of environmental sociology will be applied to the reduction of crop yield in south Asia to show what the potential responses to a change in crop yield might entail. Finally, the idea of climate change as a justice issue, and how actions resulting from this idea might impact south Asian agriculture, will be examined.


Science of Climate Change and Crop Yield

To understand how climate change might impact Asian crop yield (the efficiency of agricultural practices), one must first explore the crops typically produced in Asia. Rice is a primary Asian product, and 9 of the 10 countries with the largest rice production are Asian (Lee, Nadolnyak, and Hartarska 2012). Rice production requires high water availability, proper soil, and high temperatures in the growing season, all traits common across Asia. Often, rice production occurs in flooded rice paddies, and benefits from the tropical Asian monsoon seasons (Southwest and Northeast). Some countries are able to harvest rice twice a year due to continuous tropical heat and two monsoon seasons. Because of this, increased precipitation (including that due to climate change) may be beneficial to crop yields. However, increased temperatures will counteract the benefits of increased precipitation, resulting in overall lower production and crop yield.


Moving from general Asian agricultural production to specific countries, the impact of climate change can be examined in more detail. A 2013 modelling study examined the impact of temperature and atmospheric CO2  change on rice production in Bangladesh (Basak et al. 2013). The study used the DSSAT modelling system and found that an increased maximum yearly temperature was correlated with reduced rice yields. A 2° C increase in maximum temperature resulted in a 6% reduction in rice yield, and a 4° C increase resulted in a 16% reduction in yield. Similarly, increases in minimum yearly temperature also decreased rice yield, though not to the same extent. A 2° C increase to both maximum and minimum temperatures resulted in a 10.5% crop yield reduction, whereas a 4° C increase resulted in a 23% reduction. Interestingly, higher CO2 levels were correlated with increased rice production. A 50 ppm CO2 increase would result in a 2.75% crop yield increase, 100 ppm would result in a 6.25% increase, and 200 ppm would result in a 12% increase. Overall, these results show that increased temperatures are detrimental to Bangladeshi crop yield, but increased atmospheric CO2 is beneficial. The temperature-dependent yield reduction was projected to overpower the CO2-dependent yield increase, meaning that overall, Bangladeshi crop yields are projected to decrease as a result of climate change under the DSSAT model.


Another South Asian country that will be impacted by climate change is Sri Lanka (Seo, Mendelsohn, and Munasinghe 2005). Like other South Asian countries, Sri Lanka depends heavily on its agricultural sector, which is vulnerable to climate change. To examine how climate change might impact Sri Lankan agriculture, Seo et al. used the Ricardian modelling method (2005). This method examines net agricultural revenues to elucidate the impact of climate change on multiple crop types and farmer adaptation. Using the Ricardian method, the authors found that climate change-induced temperature increases will prove harmful to Sri Lankan agriculture, though this will be mitigated by beneficial rainfall increases  The dry northern and eastern provinces of the country (which will undergo significant temperature increases) will experience significant agricultural losses, whereas the cooler central highlands will experience little agricultural loss, and possibly even of an increase in crop yield. The study found large variability in the results based on different climate scenarios, revealing the difficulty in predicting the impact climate change will have on agriculture.


To summarize, this section illustrates that multiple factors of climate change can impact agriculture. Increases in temperature are projected to reduce crop yield, while CO2 and precipitation increases will (partially) mitigate the temperature-induced reduction. Overall, the harms of temperature will exceed the benefits of CO2 and precipitation. Next, some of the direct sociological impacts of reduced crop yield will be examined.


Impact of Reduced Crop Yields on Individuals

For individual farmers, decreased crop yields will likely reduce land value, since their existing land will be tied to less productivity (Mendelsohn and Dinar 1999). To compensate for the climate change-induced reduction in crop yield, some farmers will look towards adaptations, which might include hardier or genetically modified crops that can survive higher temperatures. Based on this, some researchers have used Ricardian modelling to examine how land value and farm performance impacted by climate change might be mitigated by efficient adaptation measures. When compared to agronomic models (which lacks consideration for adaptation) it was found that the Ricardian model predicted a smaller reduction in productivity. However, less wealthy farmers may not have access to these adaptations, and thus will be less able to minimize the decrease in crop yield in their farms. It is important to investigate the impact of climate change on these less wealthy farmers (including those that do not own land), as they constitute about 75% of the rural population in developing countries and produce a large portion of many countries’ agricultural products (Morton 2007).


Some less wealthy farmers are considered subsistence farmers and are especially vulnerable to climate change for a few reasons. First, their land covers a small area and is often informally owned (in the eyes of the national government). Second, subsistence farming is a risky practice and can be threatened by flooding or drought, livestock or crop disease, and local market issues. Third, as mentioned earlier, it is difficult for subsistence farmers to adapt to climate change. To compensate for these risks, many farmers also maintain a partial hunter/gatherer lifestyle, foraging for wild-grown resources. They may also be employed off  their land as an alternative source of income.


The prior paragraph highlighted some factors of subsistence farming that makes individuals engaged in the practice especially vulnerable to climate change. However, this does not fully describe how climate change actually impacts subsistence farmers. Climate change-induced alterations in crop growth alter crop calendars and the growing season (Savo et al. 2016). This is important because it makes it more difficult for subsistence farmers to predict when they should plant and harvest crops. Additionally, climate change can kill crops or hinder  growth during the growing season, destroying entire  harvests, and it may result in increased soil erosion and decreased soil quality.


Aside from these primary impacts of climate change, the decrease in limited resources may result in increased interpersonal conflict and social and cultural disruptions. Some individuals have been observed to decrease food consumption and increase daily walking distances to obtain water or tend to pasture animals. Additionally, a decrease in crop yield may result in alterations to traditional and ritual food harvesting.


As mentioned earlier, many farmers will turn to adaptation to combat the detrimental impact of climate change on crop yield. Those farmers wealthy enough to afford adaptation may utilize various practices, including artificial glaciers (such as those used in Ladakh, India) (Mallick 2015). To combat water shortages, Ladakh region farmers store glacial melt water on hillsides, allowing for a marked increase in crop yield. Other farmers may turn to methods such as expanded irrigation systems, pest control, and crop insurance to combat the threat of climate change-induced droughts.


Impact of Reduced Crop Yields on Countries

Moving from the sociological impact of reduced crop yield on individual farmers to south Asian countries as a whole, there are projected to be six major socioeconomic effects of climate change in south Asia: a decline in crop yield and production, reduced GDP from agriculture, changes in world market prices, alterations in trade, an increased risk of food insecurity, and migration and interpersonal conflict (Mallick 2015). This means that in general, south Asian countries will experience less economic output from agriculture. This, combined with a general decrease in crop yield, will alter the global market price and trading strategies for various crops. The increased risk of food insecurity (as highlighted in the prior section regarding subsistence farmers) will impact migration rates and result in conflict and civil unrest issues.


As farmers in South Asia try to deal with reduced crop yields, they will likely turn to modern agriculture. Modern agriculture (often referred to as industrial agriculture) is a system of agriculture focused on providing food for a vast number of people (Downey 2015:117-118). Industrial agriculture utilizes motorized farming equipment, large farms, monocropping, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the use of antibiotics, pesticides, growth hormones, fertilizers, and irrigation, and the broad commercialization of agriculture. Many of these practices are considered environmentally harmful; using antibiotics in CAFOs can lead to the proliferation of pathogenic antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and the use of nitrogen fertilizers can lead to algal blooms in the ocean.


Industrial agriculture is a sociological phenomenon because it is centered upon two economic concepts: the oligopsony and the oligopoly. In an oligopsony, there are many sellers for a given product (in this case agricultural produce) and few buyers. These sellers are often farmers that have been contracted to raise a particular agricultural product, with the understanding that they will sell this product to the contracting company. There are relatively few buyers of raw agricultural products, resulting in a monopolization of buying power. These buyers also partake in an oligopoly when they sell the produce (after furthur processing) obtained in the oligopsony. There are relatively few sellers of processed agricultural products and many buyers. Essentially, large agricultural companies obtain produce through an oligopsony and sell this produce to the general population through an oligopoly.


Applying these agricultural concepts to the developing world, it is likely that farmers will embrace some aspects of industrial agriculture. As crop yields diminish, farmers will turn to adaptive strategies (such as the advanced irrigation technique of an artificial glacier discussed earlier). These strategies will be oriented towards increasing crop yields, just like the adaptations that led to industrial agriculture. As smaller or subsistence farms will be unable to produce enough food to survive or compete with the larger, adapting farms, they will likely merge into the larger farms. This will result in alterations to traditional farming communities and a loss of traditional farming practices .


Overall, a shift in farming in south Asia may ultimately result in increased commercialization of agriculture, where products are made with the primary intention to sell, instead of feeding the farmers. From the perspective of developed countries worldwide, this may be an opportunity for resource extraction. Developed countries tend to favor liberalized trade agreements, which promote international trade and commerce (Downey 2015:148-159). Despite the benefits of these agreements (e.g. increased international trade and diversity of products within countries), there are several issues. Under liberalized trade, corporations in developed countries can purchase goods produced in developing countries. When multiple corporations engage in this practice, competition necessarily occurs if their goods are similar. To compete, corporations often seek to reduce the cost of production, which in this case falls on farmers in the developing world. In addition, the pattern of produce import and export can also impact farmers. For example, under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. corporations increased their export of pork products to Mexico by 700%, while Mexican-produced pork prices dropped by 56%. Flooding the Mexican pork market with cheaper U.S. products put many Mexican farmers out of business, as they could not compete with the imported pork goods. This shows that liberalized trade agreements have the potential to harm or alter agricultural production and the agricultural market of developing south Asian countries, potentially disrupting the lives of farmers in these countries.


Sociological Solutions and Explanations

Now that the impact of climate change on south Asian agriculture has been discussed, some sociological explanations and theories can be discussed. An important facet of decreased crop yields is how farmers will adapt to this change. A few theories offer guidance for what these adaptations should entail, and what can be done to avoid similar environmental problems in the future.


One prominent environmental sociology theory is Risk Society (Beck 1992). Risk Society considers modern human activities to be putting humanity at risk to environmental issues. Technological solutions to ecological crises are met with criticism and are regarded as exacerbating environmental problems and putting society at risk. Applying this theory to southern Asian agriculture, the adaptations farmers take to combat reduced crop yields may put these farmers at risk. As discussed earlier, many farmers may turn to modern industrial agricultural practices, including the use of antibiotics, pesticides, and nitrogen fertilizers. The use of these specific modern practices will surely put Asian farmers at risk and are known to have detrimental environmental effects. Risk Society would suggest that subsistence farmers avoid technological advancements that could put these farmers at furthur risk. Despite its emphasis on safety and a cautious approach to technological advancement, Risk Society theory does not offer a solution to the issues southern Asian farmers face. Reduced crop yields will put these farmers at grave risk, no doubt resulting in some level of agricultural adaptation.


The antithesis to Risk Society is Ecological Modernization (Spaargaren 1997). In Ecological Modernization, technological solutions and adaptations are the key to solving environmental issues. Ecological Modernization holds the opinion that the benefits of technological solutions outweigh the risks. In south Asia, many farmers interested in adaptation will likely embrace the ideas of this theory. Ecological Modernization would encourage the use of modern agricultural techniques despite the risks these techniques might pose to farmers. Thus, Ecological Modernization does not adequately consider the risks of technological development and adaptation. When adapting to reduced crop yields, south Asian farmers might find it useful to consider both Risk Society and Ecological Modernization and understand both the risks and benefits of various adaptive strategies. This will help them to make more informed descisions as to how they should proceed in changing their farming practices.


Environmental sociology theories also consider the impact of politics and governments on environmental issues. There are two major political theories which can be related to the issue of climate change in south Asia: natural capitalism and eco-socialism. Like risk society and ecological modernization, natural capitalism and eco-socialism serve as opposing theories. In natural capitalism, environmental adaptations are thought of as marketable commodities, and solutions to environmental issues are examined through a capitalist lens (Hawken et al. 2013). Natural capitalism also considers itself to be an extension upon modern capitalism, and adds the ideas of ecosystem services, engineering efficiency, and waste to the standard capitalist consideration for extraction, production, economic efficiency, and consumption. For example, to reduce the effects of human pollution, natural capitalism suggests that companies manufacture their products such that less waste is produced by the consumer. Essentially, these companies would be engineering efficiency into their products to minimize waste. Natural capitalism would argue that in south Asia, farming communities should adopt a capitalist and environmentally conscious approach to agriculture. Farmers might modify their agricultural methods to reduce waste, become more efficient, and pollute less. By wasting less water, seed, and time in agriculture, farmers would be able to achieve greater crop yields with less work. Farmers would trade produce in a manner that minimizes waste and time, allowing people to survive with the reduced crop yields that will result from climate change.


In contrast to this natural capitalism approach, eco-socialism is centered upon a socialist view of environmental issues (Magdoff and Foster 2011). Eco-socialism considers environmental issues to be the result of capitalist practices, such as a preference for a product’s exchange value instead of use value. Whereas capitalism is interested in what a product can be exchanged for, socialism is interested in what that product can be used for. Eco-socialism critiques the capitalist emphasis on efficiency, arguing that increased efficiency will drive consumer demand and use of a given product, cancelling out the benefits of efficiency (this is known as Jevon’s paradox). As a solution to reduced crop yields in south Asia, eco-socialism would urge communities and countries to adopt a socialist political system, reduce economic growth, and fight against consumerism. If south Asian countries could reduce capitalism-driven waste and consumerism, their people could survive on less. The application of eco-socialism to individual south Asian subsistence farmers is unclear at best, given that these farmers have very little room for waste as it is, and rarely produce more than they need to survive. However, this theory does warrant consideration at the national level, as countries could re-consider how agricultural products are distributed and sold. The eco-socialist ideas of trade stand in stark contrast to the capitalist ideas of liberalized trade, which (as discussed earlier) are tied with industrial agriculture.


Climate Change as a Justice Issue

The response to reduced crop yields in south Asia is certainly not limited to agricultural adaptations and a re-working of product distribution systems. Given that climate change is a global issue, it is likely that many countries will consider assisting south Asian farmers. This falls under the sociological idea of environmental justice (Dunlap and Brulle 2015). Because more developed countries emit much more CO2 and other greenhouse gases per capita than developing countries (such as those of south Asia), developed countries have contributed more to the cause of climate change than developing countries (Althor et al. 2016). Because many developing countries bear the brunt of climate change-related issues and are less able to adapt to these changes than developed countries, there is a gap between the countries that are causing climate change and the countries that will have to deal with the issues caused by it. This discrepancy has led to the realization that climate change can be considered a justice issue.


Now that the idea of climate change as a justice issue has been established, the application of this to south Asian farmers can be examined. Many proponents of climate change justice suggest that the developed countries that created the issue of climate change in the first place should provide compensation for this harm (this is known as the polluter pays principle). Developed countries might provide money, resources, and/or technology to developing countries to help those countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. Importantly, allowing developing countries access to climate-oriented technology may be essential for the continued development of these countries.


The influx of money, recourses, and technology into south Asian countries may have a drastic impact on the social structure of these countries. The distribution of these goods among the citizens of a country will depend on that country’s government (and how willing that government is to allow its citizens access to these resources). The distribution also depends upon the donor country and how they want to disperse these goods. For example, if the U.S. were to provide $10 billion in aid relief, sent directly to the Myanmar government, the Myanmar government might regulate the flow of this aid to its citizens, possibly favoring certain groups over others. However, if the U.S. were to provide this aid relief by working directly with the citizens of Myanmar, instructing them on how to use new technologies and farming practices, the citizens might see a different (and possibly greater) impact. Overall, this shows that an influx of resources to south Asian countries in response to claims of climate injustice has the potential to impact farmers and agricultural practices. Giving these farmers the technology and funds necessary to continue their work and to survive off of their produce may be a key step in mitigating the effects of reduced crop yield in south Asia.



Climate change is a pressing issue in the 21st century. Rising temperatures threaten south Asian crop yields and the lives of those who depend on those crops. Farmers will likely be forced to adapt their farming practices in ways similar to the industrialization of agriculture in the U.S. This industrialization and monetization of agriculture comes with its own set of environmental and social issues that call into question the benefits of global agricultural trade. Additionally, various environmental sociology theories (risk society, ecological modernization, natural capitalism, and eco-socialism) can be used to understand the benefits and drawbacks of adaptive farming practices and broad social changes in south Asian countries. Finally, the realization that climate change is a justice issue may result in an influx of aid and technology to south Asian countries, which will impact the lives of farmers in these countries.


In conclusion, understanding the sociological implications of reduced crop yields is imperative in south Asia. This developing region will need to take into consideration the mistakes developed countries have made (including issues with industrial agriculture and causing anthropogenic climate change). This is especially true at the level of individual farmers, whose livelihoods will be dramatically altered by both industrialization and climate change. Under the climate justice perspective, developed countries should play an active role in ensuring these farmers are not harmed by future crop yield reductions. This requires an understanding of the desires and needs of the farmers, including local knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes not held by those in developed countries. Essentially, fighting the impact of reduced crop yields will require the sociological perspective.



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