Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Climate Resilient Sustainable Agriculture: Adapting for Change in India

Suman Sahai

Agriculture is critical for human survival. It is also one of the sectors that climate change will have the worst impact on. Indeed, there is now growing evidence that the impacts of climate change are unfolding at a pace much faster than those predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). Very high losses in agricultural production, ranging from 20 to 40 percent, are expected to occur, especially in Africa and South Asia. However, apart from being a victim of climate change, agriculture is also thought to contribute to it. According
to various estimates, it is suggested that in India alone, agriculture could contribute around 25 to 30 percent of national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Rejecting the Dominant Unsustainable Agricultural Model

Small and marginal farmers contribute 50 percent of crop production in India. Those farmers make up 85 percent of agricultural labour and of them, 40 percent are women . Despite their importance in Indian agriculture, most smallholder farmers have been driven into penury due to recurring drought,
crop failure and state neglect. 
The high input, mechanised, monoculture promoting and agrochemical based model of agriculture that is being endorsed in most parts of the world (including India) further marginalises small farmers.
Furthermore, intensive agrochemical farming with its large carbon footprint is obviously unsustainable for the future. 

In short, such model cannot help smallholder farmers cope with the emerging challenges and threats from climate change; it can only exacerbate the problem. This unsustainable model urgently
needs to be replaced with a sustainable, climate resilient, and environmentally as well as socially benign model of agriculture. Agriculture must effectively adapt to the changing climate, in a
manner which minimises or eliminates production losses. At the same time, GHG emissions from agriculture must also be minimised or eliminated in order to meet the global target of containing the rise of average temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius.

Climate Resilient Sustainable Agriculture
An alternative agricultural model must have the following elements in order to successfully move away from the dominant unsustainable model:

Water conservation and harvesting
The most important step in adapting agriculture to climate change will have to be the conservation of
water wherever it falls. Rainwater harvesting, creation of village level water bodies and watershed
development, combined with maximisation of food production, must become a core strategy to help
farmers cope with the vagaries of the changing climate.

Conserving the genetic diversity of crop plants
Conserving genetic diversity of crops is recognised as the key to helping farmers cope with climate change. Promoting agro-biodiversity at village level through Zero Energy Gene Seed Banks (such as the model developed by the Gene Campaign ) means conserving the gene pool and those genes that will be needed to breed new crop varieties to cope with droughts, floods, soil salinity and other environmental challenges that will inevitably accompany climate change.

Reducing water use and agricultural waste
By adopting new practices, such as the System of Rice Intensification, farmers can adapt to climate change with minimal losses.The System of Rice Intensification is a water saving, methane emission reducing rice cultivation strategy; this step alone would significantly reduce GHG emissions from agriculture.

Bio-organic substitutes
Agriculture can be made more sustainable and highly productive by replacing chemical fertilisers and
pesticides with bio-organic substitutes to the extent possible. By making this change, carbon footprints can be reduced, and reducing the use of nitrogenous fertilisers will also reduce nitrous
oxide emissions.

Food and nutrition gardens
To buffer the most marginal and poor sections of the society from the reduced food production
resulting from climate change, household level food and nutrition gardens will provide supplementary food supply and much needed nutrition.

Minimising mechanised agriculturePromoting labour-intensive rather than mechanised agriculture has the benefit of reducing energy
consumption, and thereby carbon emissions. It also provides employment and income to small
farmers and peasants as well as landless agriculture labourers.

Questioning genetically modified (GM) crops
There is a need to examine the role of GM crops being promoted as the answer to climate change. A critical analysis needs to be done of what, if anything, this technology can contribute to agricultural and food security. In addition, bio-safety regulations in India and other countries need to be examined to check that regulatory processes ensure safe GM crops and food.

A climate resilient as well as environmentally and socially appropriate approach to agriculture, such as those above, can be as productive as the high input and energy intensive approach to agriculture that has been relied upon for decades. Furthermore, sustainable agricultural methods can also provide
long-term food security in the face of frequent and extreme weather conditions. Lastly, the role of small and marginalised farmers in championing climate resilient sustainable agriculture must be re-emphasised and further explored.


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