Agriculture & Environment

Cultivating Carbon


November 23, 2015

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November 2015

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Agriculture, which is the source of livelihood for nearly 60 pc Indians, contributes 17.6 pc of the total green house gases (GHG) emissions in India, mainly due to intensive farming in a few select states. Organic and new farming methods give hope to the sector.

At a time when the world is gauging the impact of climate change on spheres including agriculture and proposing mitigations and strategies to deal with it, a study by the Stanford University along with China Agriculture University in 2014, published in the science journal Nature, focused on environmental affects of the modern agricultural practices. The study that was done at 153 farming sites in China suggests that if the country adopted an integrated farming approach instead of the widely practiced monoculture, the production would remain the same, while leading to a 25 pc reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Integrated farming system, for sustainable agriculture, yields high quality food, feed and renewable energy through the use of resources such as soil, air, water, nature and limiting the use of pollutants such as chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The study further goes on to say that even if 80 pc of this is achieved, China will be able to ensure its household food security by 2030.

Globally, this gives an opportunity for a radical change in the way that agriculture is impacting the environment. “Wherever I go I see people talking about how can farmers adapt to climate change and how can farmers be helped to minimise the impact of climate change on agriculture but I think it’s the other way round. How can the impact of agriculture be minimised and how can agriculture help in reducing the greenhouse emissions,” says food and trade analyst and columnist Devinder Sharma. As the temperature of the earth has increased by 0.74 ° C in the last 100 years and estimated to rise by 0.3-2.5 ° C in the next 50 years, farming has played a significant role, contributing nearly 25 pc of the total GHG emission worldwide.

In India where nearly 55 pc of the land is under agriculture, it contributes to 17 pc of the total GHG emissions, according to a study by Indian Network on Climate Change Assessment (INCCA) in 2007. This is mainly through livestock fermentation that releases methane (CH4); manure management; rice farming and use of fertilisers that are responsible for generating NO2; and burning of farm residue. Of the total 334.41 million tonnes of GHG emission from the agriculture sector, livestock contributed nearly two thirds or 212 million tonnes. India has a large livestock population, numbering over 512 million animals.

Hence, one important way to curb GHG emissions would be through reduction of carbon and nitrogen inputs in animal husbandry, primarily through dietary manipulation. The other culprits of GHG come largely in the form of poor agriculture management and practices, use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides that also affect the soil and, therefore, the production.

Glimmer of hope

However, the picture is not all gloomy as some parts of India have shown quick adoption of eco-friendly practices. Sharma says that Andhra Pradesh (AP), in southern India, has shown a remarkable move away from the intensive farming system to the agro-ecological methods of farming. The shift in the state has come over the last decade or so.

This could be good news, not just for the climate, but for the farmers as well. Farmers in the state have been under great distress, largely due to failed crops and heavy debts, generated by uncertainty over production and prices. According to an Indian government survey, nearly 92 pc of agricultural households in the state are indebted. This had led to an increasing number of farmers giving up their traditional livelihood and move to cities in search of employment opportunities.

Hence, there’s an urgent need for the state’s farmers to discover new and more economically beneficial methods of farming. This is where ecofriendly agriculture and the organic farming bring some relief. In one of the success stories recently, 53-year-old Uppala Prasad, a farmer in Krishna district of the state, through innovative use of organic farming and zero pesticide managed to increase his landholding from a mere acres in 1982 to nearly 200 acres in 2014. “Although there has been no study or analysis to look at the reduction that has been possible in the greenhouse gas emissions in AP through this shift, it shows a way ahead as suggested by the study in China,” adds Sharma.

But AP is not the only state to adopt organic methods. According to ministry of agriculture, of the total 723,000 hectares used for organic farming, Madhya Pradesh tops with 232,000 hectares, followed by Maharashtra (85,536 hectares), Rajasthan (66,020 ha) and Sikkim (60,843 ha). Remarkably, the certified area under organic farming has increased 17 times in the last one decade, from 42,000 ha in 2003-04 to 7.23 lakh ha in 2013-14. “Farmers are going for agriculture that does not use chemical pesticides, this is called non-pesticide management. Farmers have also stopped using chemical fertilisers at many places. As a result, the yields are going up, the insect attack has come down, the environment is much cleaner, farmers’ health has improved, so have their incomes and and on top of it there are no suicides by farmers,” says Sharma.

Scars of the green revolution

“Green revolution is one of the biggest myths in India,” maintains Vandana Shiva, an environmentalist who was identified by the Time magazine as one of the top environment heroes in the world in 2003. The Indian green revolution instigated a shift from the traditional agricultural practices to the modern techniques and in ways that were neither eco-friendly nor sustainable.

The revolution was introduced in 1953, and escalated in the 1960s, to improve the production and address the problems such as irrigation that India faced. Additionally genetically modified or high yield varieties (HYV) of seeds were introduced in the 1970s that offered high variety of per capita income. While it increased the production, particularly in the northern Indian state of Punjab which emerged as the leading producer of the wheat, rice and cotton in the world, the movement had serious implications for the farmers, the land and the economy per se.

The introduction of machinery and technology compromised on the forest area in India. India that comprises of 0.5 pc of forest area in the world is losing forest at a rate of 1.5 million hectares per year and consequently losing 6,000 million tonnes of soil annually containing about 5.53 million tonnes of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash valued about INR 7 billion (EUR 98.87 million). Deforestation has led to the problem of drought, siltation of rivers and dams, flood, loss of biodiversity, global warming, lowering of ground water table, as stated by a study published in the journal Science Log.

The impacts are seen on agriculture in both economic and the socio-economic aspects. Indiscriminate use of fertilisers and pesticides for enhanced crop yield has caused the problem of air, water and soil pollution. The nitrous oxide (N2O) produced by microbial action on inorganic fertilisers in soil causes depletion of stratospheric ozone layer that acts as a shield for the UV-rays. Methane (CH4) produced by methanogenic bacteria in the water-logged paddy fields is a potent green house gas responsible for global warming. India is often blamed by international community for global warming due to large-scale paddy cultivation.

The worst examples of the negative impact of intensive farming on environment can be seen in Punjab, where nearly five decades of ‘green revolution’ has led to extremely high, toxic levels of chemicals in the soil brought in by indiscriminate use of fertilisers and pesticides as well as record low levels of groundwater tables due to overexploitation of the water reserves by the farmers. The situation has become so serious in Punjab that large tracts of land, which traditionally were extremely fertile and productive now lay waste and are becoming fallow in absence of any possibility of cultivating these lands, a situation that is set to continue for many decades, if not centuries, as the toxicity levels of the land are brought down to normal levels.



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