What does the weather mean for Russian agriculture?

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Some have suggested that Russia should welcome global warming as it would make more of the country’s land farmable, but that approach is a little naïve.

There have been a lot of scientific discussions recently about what to call the climatic processes that are now engulfing the world. To me, it does not really matter whether they are called “global warming” or “climate change.” Either way, it is a big problem for the agricultural sector. Furthermore, it is not even about temperatures changing. Incidentally, if we knew for sure that each summer would be one or two degrees warmer, it would be possible to adapt to it. I would, therefore, call the situation we are now witnessing “global climate unpredictability.” Each season has brought us new surprises and this is precisely agriculture’s biggest trouble.

Agriculture is an industry with a long production cycle, with at least a six-month gap between the start of production and the finished product. At the same time, this sphere is the most dependent on weather conditions – weather, as distinct from climate.

Let us take Russia's most developed agricultural industry – grain production – as an example. To harvest a good crop, we have to know at least roughly the temperatures we will have to deal with for the year ahead. This is what underlies decisions on how to work the fields, when and what seeds to sow, what fertilizers to use, and many other things. Even if we get a particularly hot summer and a really frosty winter, it is still possible to make the season profitable. There is, however, a prerequisite: we must have a reliable weather forecast at least half a year in advance. At this point, our meteorologists do not even venture to guess what the summer will be like even in the spring. Over the last few years, only a few people have actually managed to predict how nature will behave a few months on.

The result is disappointing for agriculture: grain output has been falling 25-30 percent a year against a backdrop of rising production costs. Indeed, some types of grain are insensitive to temperature fluctuations, but simultaneously, strictly in accordance with natural laws, they are the least productive and the most demanding in terms of soil treatment and fertilizers.

There are only three factors on which farmers and agriculture experts can pin their hopes.

First, the temporary patch that has been shoring the sector up: government support. The government provides financial aid to agricultural enterprises in the event of natural disasters in order to keep them from going broke and to enable them to seed fields next season. For instance, the 2012 federal budget earmarks some 130 billion rubles ($4.5 billion) for supporting the agricultural sector. The allocation mechanism, however, leaves much to be desired. There are no express regulations and the decision-making is left up to local officials, who apply unspecified criteria. Either way, this is only a one-time measure, since the government cannot subsidize agribusiness forever.

The second option seems preferable yet challenging at the same time. It involves a technological solution to the problem. Nothing is impossible for science. If we set our mind firmly on breeding wheat that is insensitive to temperature fluctuations and would be sufficiently productive, we will actually obtain such types in a few years’ time. But this is a question of money, and whether business is interested in investing in research.

Finally, the third possible solution is the least likely but the most attractive. According to a certain theory, climate changes on Earth are related to solar cycles. Historical development, the theory says, goes in a spiral.  Weather conditions, as some researchers maintain, behave accordingly. Temperature forecasting troubles first started some 10 years ago, even as a new 10-year solar cycle began. This theory maintains that, in the next few years, fluctuations will gradually die down and the climate will once again become predictable. This is definitely the most welcome outcome for agricultural producers, since it does not require them to take any action at all – just sit and wait for things to settle down. I do not think, however, that we should base our development strategy on this, leaving our companies to the mercy of a questionable theory and the whims of nature.

 Alexander Chetverikov is a State Duma Deputy and a member of the State Duma Committee for Economic Policy, Innovative Development and Entrepreneurship, founder of the Agroholding Group.

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