Empowering Small Farmers in the Time of Climate Change

The book Coping With Climate Change edited by Suman Sahai and published by Gene Campaign — a non-government organization that works on bio-resources, farmers’ rights, climate change and agriculture amongst others — attempts to build a wider awareness of the effects, causes and solutions of climate change in sectors that are less popular than the energy sector, like agriculture, ecosystems or biodiversity.

Impacts of CC on farmers

Its seven chapters begin with mitigation and adaptation to climate change in agriculture and cover the effects of climate change on various areas like forests and biodiversity, water resources, mountain eco-systems, coastal areas and agriculture. The final chapter is on climate change negotiations.

Climate is a direct input in agriculture. Shifts in climatic patterns such as changing rainfall patterns or increasing temperatures have a debilitating effect on agricultural systems if not addressed in time. The United Nations says that developing countries will bear the major brunt of climate change as ecosystems or agricultural systems in the tropics (the global South) already operate at the brink of their tolerance.

In a developing country like India, where the majority of farmers engage in subsistence agriculture, any adverse impact on the agricultural industry threatens food security and as most developing countries are already food insecure, unmitigated climate change ultimately means disaster.

The vulnerability of the Indian agricultural industry is increased because about 60 per cent of its cultivated area is rainfed and more than 80 per cent of its farmers operating on a small scale. Most have stopped cultivating climate resilient crops like millets and have taken to crops like rice and wheat, which are far more susceptible to the vagaries of climatic fluctuations.

Without being alarmist, the book explains the various levels at which unmitigated climate change will exacerbate inequities. It presents both a theoretical look at climate change and a practical way out, with a meticulous list of mitigation and adaptation practices that will teach communities how to cope with climate change.

Sahai et al say that the mitigation of climate change and adaptation to changing scenarios needs to start at a local level so that adaptations are specific to local climatic conditions, eco-systems and agricultural methods. This approach ensures that agricultural practices keep communities and individuals self-reliant and self-sustained both ecologically and financially. One positive aspect of the predominance of subsistence or smallscale agriculture in India is that methods used are generally traditional and already based on economically and environmentally sustainable models. While many of these models have fallen into disuse, the current scenario has made many farmers realize the importance of prioritizing sustainability along with productivity

The book lays out several practices and methods as blueprints that can be adapted to specific environments, some of which are existing practices that may have fallen into disuse. These methods concentrate on the main areas of reducing carbon and methane emissions, water conservation and maintaining or enhancing crop yields. Agricultural practices or methods are listed according to factors that include soil, water, crop choices, growing methods and livestock.

Many of these “no-regret” options (sustainable methods) are beneficial to environmental, agricultural and social systems even without the threat of climate change. The mitigation methods listed for sustainable soil management that ensure the maintenance of soil carbon are a good example. The book encourages agriculturists to take up practices such as conservation tillage where either cover crops are left on the land or are ploughed into the soil, maintaining carbon sinks through extended green cover where crops are planted or agroforestry whereby crops are planted amidst green cover to prevent carbon emissions from the soil.

Adaptation methods for soil are similar and the book espouses techniques such as using manure as fertilizer, mulching, vermicomposting, preventing soil erosion through terracing and such others. Crop growing methods discussed are, similarly, low-investment and high-yielding; crop rotation, intercropping, SRI (System of Rice Intensification, a method of growing rice that uses less water but increases productivity) and organic farming. These provide economic security to farmers and mitigate effects of climate change by preventing soil erosion, reducing pests and climate risk and reducing atmospheric nitrogen.

The book places great emphasis on planting crops that will flourish even through extreme heat or drought, in sodic or saline soils or shorter growing cycles, all based on combating various outcomes of climate change like rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, flooding due to melting of polar ice-caps, or fluctuating seasons. Millet crops are especially resilient and low-input; require fewer resources to flourish; are also more nutritious; and more affordable than rice and wheat.

Sahai et al focus on the importance of nourishing agro-biodiversity and recommend that several strains, both hybrid and traditional, of the same crop be grown at the same time to build resilience. This ensures that each strain is tested for climate resilience at a local level. Community seed banks are integral to endeavours of sustainably nourishing and maintaining agro-biodiversity. Gene Campaign has been responsible for establishing zeroenergy gene-seed banks (as opposed to cold gene banks that are energy-intensive as they need low temperatures) in four states, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with the aid of an international grant. The book encourages agricultural communities to start similar village-level seed banks.

Around 17 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to crop and animal husbandry. The book suggests practices such as minimizing mechanization, supplementing urea with biological fertilizer, using neem-coated urea to minimize ammonia volatilization contributing to nitrous oxide emissions as some methods of mitigating emissions. Since methane produced by the cattle is a major contributor to overall greenhouse gas levels, it can be used as biogas to constructively channelize it. Animal dung used to provide biogas can, therefore, be treated in a safe manner and also produce clean energy.

At present, national and international interventions in climate change focus on limiting emissions and reducing energy consumption. The major point of concern at COP 21 — the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that took place in Paris from November 30, 2015 to December 11, 2015, is reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Though India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) document for COP 21 begins by stating that India has a “long history and tradition of co-existence between man and nature”, its plan of action for ensuring food security through agriculture focuses on using new technologies and cultivation practices, which are input-intensive methods. Coping With Climate Change presents a road map that follows the route of applying traditional knowledge systems and practices to combat climate change and ensure food security through methods that are knowledge-intensive.

Source :- Farmers’ Forum, Vol.15, No.6., Dec.2015-Jan 2016