The recent COP26 Summit (Climate Change Conference of the Parties) was much in the news as it aimed to bring the world together to the negotiating table. The idea was to accelerate the path and define a roadmap toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Finally, the world seemed to be coming to realize the increasing havoc that climate change can bring.
Urgency in the proceedings reflected the seriousness of the situation at hand. In the past year, the world has witnessed catastrophic events like the flooding in Germany and a summer of record-breaking wildfires in the American West. The list keeps on getting bigger every year, and it is imperative to understand and come to terms with the reality of climate change and its impact on planet Earth and societies.
Agricultural development in India is a central part of the discussion because it represents both a major area of the problem as well as a massive area of opportunity. It is estimated that an additional 189 million people could be pushed into hunger/malnutrition by 2050 with an increase of 2 degrees Celsius in mean global temperatures.
Problems and Opportunities in Agricultural Development in India
To say that agriculture is part of the systemic issue, it is also pertinent to know that, by itself and associated practices, agriculture contributes almost 30% of greenhouse emissions. The root cause in populous countries like India is the pressure to feed its teeming masses. The talk of food security dominates agricultural development policy discussions, and the future is often neglected.
India has a diverse landscape and farming activity is the primary contributor to employment with almost 60% of its population engaged in agriculture. The economic output from this activity is but a measly 20%. Agriculture and development in India is still highly dependent on rainfall, and climate change is bringing unpredictable and erratic precipitation. This alone is a harbinger of the effects of climate change that will have a devastating effect on Indian society going forward.
Agriculture development in irrigated and arid areas needs a major change in the approach and adoption of modern methods and technologies and practices that are sustainable. The goal of doubling farmer income in this scenario is a challenging task, and commitments of a net zero (in fact a net positive) are vital. Practices that look at land degradation neutrality, technology adoption, etc., are important as we move forward to reclaim degraded lands and increase crop yields. However, the issue is easy, as the adoption of technology and practices is an expensive proposition that the farmers and the government can ill afford with their limited resources.
Some issues that affect Agriculture and Sustainable Development in India
The adoption of sustainable agricultural practices in India is beset with multifarious issues. Some are:
1) Farmers with small landholdings constitute the bulk of India’s agrarian population with many involved in subsistence farming. Adverse climate events have a major impact on the farming community, especially small farmers.
2) Agriculture and development in India are highly dependent on rainfall, which is increasingly erratic in recent years.
3) Most farmers use outdated seed varieties due to cost implications.
4) Unplanned fertilizer use without soil testing is rampant, especially with small and marginal farmers. Pesticides only add to the problem and in the long run lead to depletion and exhaustion of soils resulting in low yield.
5) Only about one-third of the cropped area is under irrigation. With erratic rainfall, groundwater is extracted for irrigation, compounding the existing problem of contamination of the water table.
6) Soil erosion has led to large tracts of cultivable land rendered unfit for farming or reduced yield. Topsoil erosion due to wind and water, over-cultivation, deforestation, and overgrazing leads to major losses for agriculture and sustainable development.
To address the twin issues of food and water security, it is imperative to promote an equitable and healthy food cycle. The community most likely to bear the brunt due to ill effects of climate change are farmers with small land holdings. For them to rise above the poverty line and double their income levels, it is key to shift to climate-resilient agricultural development in India.
Focusing on adaptation and building resilience to climate change is the way forward. The time has come to transform agriculture and sustainable development programs in India to effectively respond to challenges posed by climate change, and ensure food security.
Some interventions that will help:
- Improve soil health. This is a key intervention area for managing crop resilience under climate change. Building soil carbon, reducing erosion, and increasing water retention capacity of soil are important factors that improve resilience. Soil testing for balanced nutrient application and improved application techniques lead to better crop production.
- Promote crops that are salinity-tolerant. Seed varieties that are salt tolerant and can grow well in saline water should be promoted.
- Use water-saving agricultural development techniques. Promoting use of micro irrigation, mulching, laser leveling, direct seeded rice for saving water in paddy and using water absorbents will maintain soil moisture. The use of water-saving irrigation practices reduces the water consumption by 25–85% and improves farm productivity. Reduction in labor and incidence of weeds and diseases also follow. The combined effect of water conservation practices and the promotion of conservation tillage practices lead to an increase in soil organic matter and create an ecosystem for crops to thrive.
- Promote renewable energy. This offers a positive impact on the environment as it reduces the carbon footprint of agriculture. Measures include solar water pumps and solar sprays, among others. Solar water pumps can be promoted among small land holders growing vegetables, who do not have borewells for irrigation. These pumps based on renewable sources are low-power pumps that lead to cost saving for the farmer and sustain livelihoods.
- Greenhouse for crops. Promotion of greenhouse farming supports growth of crops within sheltered structures for favorable growing conditions and protect crops from unfavorable weather and various pests.
Interventions/Programs that are effective toward Agriculture and Sustainable Development.
S M Sehgal Foundation (SMSF), specializing in agricultural development in India, is an implementing NGO that works in rural areas at the grassroots level. It has embarked on a mission to achieve a positive social, economic, and environmental change across rural India through its public private partnership interventions. Foundation teams address critical issues concerning food security, water security, local participation and information asymmetry, with a focus on the empowerment of women and children. SMSF operates across eleven states, in over 1,300 villages so far, reaching more than 3.2 million people.
S M Sehgal Foundation’s Agricultural Development Program team has been working to build resilience in agriculture and sustainable development and create mechanisms to cope with or adapt to the effect of climate change in agriculture. Using a multipronged approach, the team works with farmers to promote water use efficiency in agricultural development, soil health and nutrient management, renewable energy, appropriate farm machinery, protected cultivation, and salt-tolerant varieties of cereal and vegetable crops. S M Sehgal Foundation’s Agricultural Development Program promotes sustainable livelihoods by building capacities of farmers, including women producers, on improved agricultural practices and new technologies that increase crop yields, conserve water, and improve soil fertility.
Some interventions undertaken:
- Soil testing-based scientific Package of Practices. In a farmers’ training program organized by SMSF, on the importance of testing soil nutrients and soil test-based crop cultivation, farmers are taught about the need of seventeen nutrients for crops to complete their life cycle and to give good yields. Understanding of soil reports and their usage in the field has benefited Meer Singh (a progressive farmer from Taoru block, Nuh) to realize the difference in quality of yields and an increase in produce. He now understands soil test reports and uses them in the field.
Promoting saline water tolerant crops. SMSF has been working with farmers in Nuh, Haryana, encouraging them to grow salinity-tolerant crops. For the past four years, the agricultural development team has been promoting saline water crops like broccoli that give good productivity and also result in decent earning by farmers. Farmers in villages Mundaka, Ghaghas, and Mandikhera in Nuh, a region mostly having saline water, are now coming forward to grow broccoli as the market rates for the crop are good (about Rs 30 per kilo) and in less than half of a hectare, the produce is 50–60 quintals (1 quintal=100 kgs).
- Promoting the use of mini sprinklers under project Gram Uday. Under this project, SMSF has been promoting usage and benefits of modern agriculture development practices. For water conservation, Gram Uday promotes usage of mini sprinklers by clearly communicating the benefits in a water-deficit geography like Nuh to small-scale farmers. The use of sprinklers, a micro-irrigation technique, reduces the overexploitation of groundwater, which occurs with the inefficient use of surface water. In the district of Nuh, the surface and groundwater resources are poor and are a major challenge to the growth of agricultural development. The major source of irrigation is the tube well, and the irrigation method is mostly flood/surface irrigation, which increases groundwater exploitation. Normal rainfall in the district is 514 mm (CGWB, 2007), thereby recharging the depleted groundwater level. Against this backdrop, it is essential to manage groundwater efficiently by adopting micro-irrigation systems like drip or sprinkler irrigation.
All the climate-smart agricultural interventions introduced by S M Sehgal Foundation team have immense scope for scalability, and many farmers have adopted and sustained the practices beyond the project period completion. Farmer capacity building and training have created a demand for information about better agronomic practices to make agricultural development rewarding and has put farmers at ease to use the technology. Technological interventions have been readily adopted by farmers in project areas, and linkages with various institutions help sustain the information flow for farmers to adopt new technological interventions from time to time.
The time has come for structured training among the farming community to sensitize them to climate change. It is essential to fine tune the gap between current farming practices and those that promote sustainability and longevity. Farmer-oriented programs are the way forward to achieve new skill sets in farming and allied sectors. A collaborative approach among the stakeholders (farmers, research institutions, funding agencies, governments, NGOs and private sectors) are needed. Only a combined synergy will lead to a sustainable future in agricultural development in India.