Issues Magazine

Seeds of Life: Adapting for Food Security

By Nicholas Molyneux

Looking at crop varieties and farming practices in Timor Leste is essential to food security in the face of climate change.

Timor Leste has a turbulent history, a complicated present and a challenging future. From the middle of the 16th century, Timor Leste was colonised by the Portuguese. The country declared independence from Portugal on 28 November 1975 and was invaded and occupied by Indonesia nine days later. On 30 August 1999, after much spilled blood and staunch resistance for 25 years, the large majority of East Timorese voted in a referendum for independence from Indonesia and in 2002 Timor Leste was internationally recognised as an independent state.

It is a small country of just over one million people, located in the eastern half of the island of Timor, which it shares with West Timor. It is the last large island in the Indonesian archipelago, with Australia to the south and the Island of Papua to its east.

The island is dominated by a mountainous backbone rising to 3000 metres, dissected by steep-sided river valleys. Maize, rice, cassava, sweet potato and peanut are the five major crops that, along with a broad range of other food crops, are grown on steep slopes (small pockets of flat land near the coasts and within the mountains are levelled, puddled and bunded for rice production.

Farming in Timor Leste is almost exclusively subsistence farming, with slash and burn practices being the most common method of land preparation and farming practice. The staple crops can and are being successfully grown in this way, but yields are permanently low and labour is a limiting factor.

With a shifting trend away from rural areas and into the cities as well as a rapidly increasing population, these agricultural practices are becoming less and less appropriate and are no longer able to feed the population in an acceptable way in terms of food security and environmental sustainability. Added to these problems are the worries that climate change is bringing to an already frail system.

The climate of Timor varies considerably between locations. The low-lying coastal areas are typically tropical to semi-arid with a usually well-defined wet and dry season. The higher elevations are characterised by much cooler temperatures and a bimodal wet season that is longer and heavier, so upland areas are extremely wet for a lot of the year.

Temperatures across the whole of Timor are likely to increase by 1.5°C by 2050 above average levels from around the year 1975. Rainfall is predicted to increase by approximately 10 per cent, which for some areas means about 25–30 cm more per year.

This type of climate change information is invaluable for agricultural policy planning, and is becoming much easier to access and manipulate for individual locations and purposes. In order to extract this information from the prediction models created by climate institutes around the world, such as Australia’s CSIRO, a computer program called WorldClim and a GIS mapping program called DIVA were developed by a team of scientists from the USA. These programs are freely available and can be used to map predictions for climate anywhere in the world.

The maps for Timor tell us that we will need to adapt crops and farming practices if we are to ensure that production increases at a rate that allows the current population to be food secure, and also for future larger populations to not need to rely on external assistance and expensive food imports.

Some of the methods we have identified at Seeds of Life are:

• Selecting food crop varieties adapted to current and future climates in East Timor. This involves importing successful varieties from other countries that are likely to be successful in Timor under current and future climates. The varieties are tested to see if they grow well in Timorese environments and are compatible with the soils, day length, rainfall, drought and pests. They are also tested for farmer acceptance, as some crops will be undesirable for a number of reasons such as difficulty to grow, reliability of yield, taste, storage and cooking. Once this is done they are released to the populace, and we encourage farmers to try them out on a small scale. Varieties that are appropriate for future climates can be maintained and disseminated as needed. Increasing farmer access to a diverse range of varieties and species is one of the keys to reducing climate-forced food insecurity.

• Promoting the use of good on-farm storage for seed and food. A massive 30 per cent of the annual harvest is lost to weevils, rats and other pests during storage in Timor Leste. Reducing this loss is akin to increasing yields, and will relieve pressure on climate-affected crop losses and yield reductions. The ability to successfully store grain for eating and seed for replanting for more than a year is a safety mechanism that will increase a household’s food security, even in years when climate change shocks destroy crops.

• Promoting the use of a wider range of legumes, and especially cover crop legumes like velvet bean. Legume plants hold a wide range of advantageous characteristics for agriculture’s adaptation to climate change. The seeds of a legume species are high in protein, of which there is a serious deficiency in many areas of Timor Leste. Species such as pigeon peas have long tap roots that allow it to cope with drought as well as stabilising soils, and the associated bacteria Rhizobia capture gaseous nitrogen, making it available for plants as ammonium. Legumes such as Mucuna can be used as a cover crop, meaning it out-competes other weeds to allow the primary crop (in this case maize) to grow while supplying it with nitrogen and producing a highly nutritious fodder for livestock to eat during the dry season. The labour involved in weeding is reduced, which is of great benefit to subsistence farmers. Other conservation farming techniques such as mulching, terracing, contour farming and the use of organic fertilisers are also necessary for sustaining and improving the nutrient content, depth and texture of the heavy, thin clay soils that dominate the island.

There is also a real need to introduce responsible inorganic fertiliser use. Well-designed, responsible inorganic fertiliser use will drastically improve yields in almost all situations. The increase in yield will undermine any decreases in yields and reliability due to climate change and yearly variability. If bad years increase in frequency, improving yields and storage in the good years will be essential for maintaining household food security.

This improvement can be achieved with minimal quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium applied in novel ways, such as the micro-dosing method and utilising small pits into which you plant and apply fertiliser, even on sloping grounds. It is important, considering the financial costs and risks of dependency that inorganic use fertiliser entails, that it is only promoted to those farmers and locations where access to market allows surplus harvest to be sold for a profit that covers the cost of buying fertiliser. Locations where this is not possible will only be able to benefit from subsidised fertiliser, which in the short term will increase food security but is fraught with complications in the long term. Better access to markets and improving market systems are a prerequisite to introducing a fertiliser culture.

Climate change is a challenge, particularly for the poorest and most marginalised peoples in countries like Timor Leste. With appropriate planning based on the best models and predictions, adapting to climate change can allow us to reduce the inherent deleterious effects, and perhaps even capitalise on the positive changes that can occur in many situations.

The governments of East Timor and Australia collaboratively fund the Seeds of Life program. Australian funding is provided through the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and is managed by ACIAR. The Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLIMA) within the University of Western Australia coordinates the Australian-funded activities.