In less than two weeks, countries will meet for the global climate change negotiations at CoP-26. India is one of the most vulnerable, with its farmers facing the heat, quite literally. Higher ambient temperatures, less predictable rains, frequent droughts and cyclones will only worsen in the years ahead, increasing the vulnerability of Indian farmers. Could embracing sustainable agriculture improve farm incomes and nutrition security in a climate-changing world? How can we scale it up?
The Green Revolution that once helped India overcome a food crisis is reaching its limits. Its impact in rain-fed areas remains marginal. Even in irrigated areas, a typical farmer now uses 3.5 times more fertilizer than in 1970 to get the same output. Ironically, as much as 78% of this fertilizer is lost to the environment, causing soil, air and water pollution. Consequently, income growth in agriculture is the slowest among all sectors of India’s economy. Further, while input-intensive agriculture has made us calorie-secure, about 22% of adults are underweight and 38% and 59% of children under the age of five are stunted and anaemic.
Clearly, India needs more than doubling farmers’ income to solve its multi-dimensional food and agriculture crisis. Sustainable agriculture may hold the key. In a report (bit.ly/388KCLp), the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) identified 16 sustainable agriculture practices (SAPs), such as organic farming, natural farming, integrated farming systems, agroforestry and precision farming. These could be economically remunerative, socially inclusive and environmentally benign. A few states are already at the vanguard of this revolution. Sikkim is a 100% organic state, and Andhra Pradesh aims at 100% natural farming by 2027.
Yet, sustainable agriculture remains at the margins and no single SAP has been adopted by more than 4% of farmers. Support from the Centre is limited. India’s National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture receives only 0.8% of the agricultural budget of ₹1.42 trillion. The lack of state support limits the mainstreaming of sustainable agriculture.
Despite the gaps, there is emerging evidence on the impact of SAPs on incomes, yields, nutrition and the environment. Natural and organic farming have improved farmers’ net income by reducing inputs costs and increasing crop diversification. They have raised annual farm output by unlocking additional cropping seasons in rain-fed areas. Some practices are also helping improve farm resilience against climate change. For instance, in 2018, naturally-farmed paddy and banana fields withstood heavy cyclones in Andhra Pradesh, whereas adjoining fields with conventionally harvested crops were devastated.
India should start promoting sustainable agriculture, particularly in rain-fed areas—home to 60% of Indian farmers. Rain-fed farmers practise low-resource agriculture, have low productivity and stand to be the chief gainers from this transition. Further, SAPs could enable higher crop diversity and intensity, leading to improved nutrition security and incomes for small and landless farmers. Here’s what India could do to scale up sustainable agriculture.
First, support knowledge exchange and capacity building. Many of these practices are knowledge- and skill-intensive. Farmers need handholding in the early phases. To accelerate this process, government must leverage the presence of more than 1,000 civil society organizations that are already promoting farmer-to-farmer capacity building for sustainable agriculture.
Second, support technology innovation and adoption to mechanize labour-intensive activities associated with SAPs. Incentivize innovators and entrepreneurs through channels like the Atal Innovation Mission to encourage the development of farm implements for SAPs. Alongside, support local micro-businesses through state livelihood missions to produce and sell ready-made inputs such as vermicompost and organic fertilizers.
Third, gradually restructure government support to agriculture through effective farmer engagement and transition support for short-term losers. Instead of input-based subsidies for fertilizer and power, incentivize outcomes such as annual nutrition output per hectare and enhanced ecosystem services such as water conserved or desertification reversed. Outcome-based support could encourage innovation among farmers and allow the adoption of alternative approaches, including SAPs.
Fourth, significantly enhance research and development support for SAPS and for impact studies comparing these with conventional farming across agro-climatic zones. Focusing on landscape-level long-term impact studies could inform further scale-ups of SAPs even in irrigated areas. The rigour of regular comparisons of outcomes amid climate change is important for safeguarding farm incomes, nutrition security and natural capital.
Finally, and most importantly, broaden the national policy focus from food to nutrition security, looking beyond yields and measuring annual nutrition output per hectare. This profound shift in perspective is critical to stay resilient and healthy in a climate-changing world.
Abhishek Jain is a fellow and director of Powering Livelihoods at CEEW, an independent not-for-profit policy research institution.
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