Sustainable and climate resilient agriculture

Introduction

Climate change and failing monsoons are exacerbating an already fragile situation in rain fed areas of Jharkhand and much of Uttarakhand where food production, already marginal, is becoming even less secure.

According to climate estimates, agriculture in the productive areas of South Asia will be amongst the most adversely affected. The worst brunt of climate change on food production will be borne by farmers in the rainfed regions where as it is conditions are marginal and only one crop is taken per year. Except where some surface water is available, there is no winter crop and fields are left fallow.

The failure of monsoons may become a common climactic feature as it did in 2009 and in 2010 in Eastern India. This saw drought conditions in Jharkhand where not a single rice crop could be planted in almost 80 percent of the area.

It evident that rain-fed areas need special treatment or rather a different approach to the way agriculture takes place if farm families are to become food secure all year round.

Gene Campaign’s Work

Gene Campaign’s goal is to foster holistic and sustainable agriculture that could build soil health and fertility to ensure agriculture is possible, productive and sustainable for rural and adivasi communities in the short-term and the long-term in the face of changing climate.

Coping with the impact of climate change on agriculture will require careful management of resources – land, water and biodiversity. If climate change impacts can be incorporated in the design and implementation of development programs right away, it will help to reduce vulnerability, stabilize food production and better secure livelihoods.

Unlike the holistic approach taken for irrigated agriculture (especially during the Green Revolution), subsistence rainfed agriculture has so far been dealt with in a fragmented way and in compartments which may not always speak to each other. Such attempts are directed either at soil conservation or water management or crop cultivars or suitable fertilizer application but not all together as a comprehensive package. The alternative approach to manage soils in rainfed areas would be to develop an integrated package of practices to halt the process of soil degradation, replenish micronutrients and adjust the pH of the soil.

‘More crop per drop of water’ is a strategy recommended to tackle drought. Practices in agriculture need to shift from intensive, mechanized, water demanding agriculture to a more sustainable, conservative agriculture that grows crops using less water. The focus should be to stabilize productivity following the principle of minimizing risk rather than attempting to maximize output. The former relies on the use of sustainable bio-organic agriculture practices that keep soils healthy and productive, where as the latter approach (agrochemical based agriculture) is high-risk with a large ecological cost, which the fragile ecosystems of rainfed areas are even less able to sustain than those in the irrigated belt. .

Rainfed area agriculture must be made broad based (relying on several crop varieties, not few), build sustainability by building soil health and soil water retention and use cultivation technologies such as System of Rice intensification (SRI) that conserve water as well as increase yield. In addition, an agricultural system for rainfed areas should aim for low dependence on expensive external inputs (and develop inputs from local, easily available resource) since most farmers in Jharkhand and Uttarakhand are resource-poor small farmers.

Enable farmers to understand climate change. At present, there is little understanding among rural communities about climate change. They are bewildered by the unpredictable changes that are throwing their crop patterns out of gear. A large scale awareness generation and training program is necessary to increase sensitivity to the problems that agriculture will face, understand its causes, and prepare farmers to make agriculture more climate resilient. Training local youth with the knowledge to support agricultural productivity and help troubleshoot will help communities cope with the worst of the climate change impacts.

There is need to take advantage of the new weather advisory service offered by the Ministry of Earth Sciences. This Agromet Service provides reasonable weather and rainfall data in real time. It has the capacity to predict the onset of the monsoon with an accuracy of about one week. With access to Agromet data, farmers will be better able to match their planting to the onset of the rains and even decide which crop to plant.

Program Areas

Jharkhand: Two districts Ranchi & Khunti. In Ranchi in the Ormanjhi & Angara Block and in Khunti, the Karra Block.

Uttarakhand: The blocks of Ramgarh, Dhari,Okhalkanda, Hawalbagh, and Dhauladevi in the districts of Nainital and Almora.

What Gene Campaign is Doing

At every location the initial effort is to understand the local context of climate change.

For this, detailed discussions with various sections of the community help the organisation to document information such as. Changes that have taken place over time in rainfall pattern; water availability for summer and winter crops ; cropping pattern and crop choices; crop diversity and seed availability; changes in local flora and fauna; outward migration; income opportunities, availability of fuelwood and other biomass etc. The community’s experiences of coping with related/ similar phenomena in the past and their suggestions for coping in the current context

This information is collected by village youth trained by Gene Campaign, as they speak the local language, are familiar to the community and because they live there they are available at all times. They use qualitative and quantitative tools such as structured survey forms, group discussions as well as interviews with village elders to bring out collective community experiences and observations.

This information is analysed to see if perceptions of climate change and vulnerability to its impacts are uniform or differentiated along gender or socio-economic status of the people. This gives information about the vulnerability of particular sections of the community to climate change and underlines the need for special considerations to be kept in mind when introducing climate change adaptation measures.

Understanding the local context also includes documenting the skills and knowledge available within the community to cope with adverse situations resulting from extreme weather conditions. The rich wealth of traditional knowledge and the community’s strategies to cope with floods or droughts or un seasonal weather are used to inform the overall sustainability strategies and adaptive mechanisms for the region.

Activities undertaken for agricultural sustainability

A) awareness building ON impact of CLIMATE CHANGE on agriculture

Trained youth from the community along with a guide from the Gene Campaign hold several engagements with the community to discuss climate change, its impact and what needs to be done to make agriculture climate resilient. They analyse agricultural practices and their impact, the cost-benefit analysis of chemical based agriculture Vs bio-organic agriculture, the harmful effects of incautious use of new agro biotechnologies, the need and importance of biorganic farming,the importance of plant based bio pesticides for controlling insect pests of crops, and bio alternatives to chemical fertilisers like vermicompost. These helps farm families to understand climate change better and the need to act to make their agriculture sustainable.


B) REDUCING EMISSION OF GREEEN HOUSE GASES (GHGs) FROM AGRICULTURE by training farmers mitigation practices
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Seventeen percent of total GHG emissions are from agriculture. This is broken down to include nine percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions chiefly from land degradation/deforestation and farm mechanisation; 47 percent of global methane (CH4) emissions, primarily from rice paddy cultivation and livestock; and 58 percent of global nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, mostly from fertilizer application (IPCCC 2007). Methane has 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) compared to CO2, and nitrous oxide has a GWP of about 300 times that of CO2. Thus the need for mitigating practices in agriculture is very high.

Gene Campaign focuses on appropriate interventions for mitigating each of the major GHGs: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Towards this farmers are trained in:

Producing and using bio-organic fertilizers from local flora for better soil nutrition as they enhance carbon and nitrogen content in soils.

Commonly used bio-organic fertilizers are Blue green algae for nitrogen fixation. Compost manure: It isproduced from waste material such as cereal straws, crop stubble, groundnut husk, farm weeds, grasses, leaves etc which have a high carbon nitrogen ratio. Green manure: Is a process of enriching the soil by turning down undecomposed plant material (other than crop residues) usually from leguminous plant either in-situ or brought in from other places. Green manuring can increase humus content of soil as well as supply available nitrogen to the plant. Vermicompost, which is a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer and soil conditioner. It is produced using earthworms that breakdown of organic waste matter leaving a higher saturation of nutrients that are highly nutritious for soil health. Farmyard manure: It is the most commonly used organic manure by farmers. It consists a mixture of cattle dung and the bedding used in stable and plant stalks fed to cattle. Collected cattle urine is added to the dung in the manure pit. Nitrogen in the urine is mainly in the form of urea, which readily changes to ammonium carbonate through bacterial action and acts as a natural fertilizer.

Gene Campaign promotes community based vermin-composting both for economies of scale as well generating incomes from them for the community as more and more farmers take to using bio-organic nutrients.

In regions where agrochemicals continue to be used farmers are trained to use neem coated urea to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, and to use precision farming i.e. using correct methods and timings for applying nitrogenous fertilizers for maximum plant uptake and limited release of N2O into the atmosphere. Farmers are also trained to test soil in their fields and use techniques such as the leaf colour chart to help them determine when they should or should not use fertilizer depending on the colour of the leaves

Producing and using plant based pesticides and biopesticides. Plant based pesticides and bio-pesticides such as trichoderma and trichogramma form part of the package of sustainable agriculture that reduce farm emissions, reduces agrochemical inputs and input costs for farmers. These are being developed in collaboration with National Botanical Research Institute (Lucknow). Additionally bio-pesticides that are also being used in the fields have been developed from local plants such as Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), Neem (Azadirachta indica), Sindwar(Vitex negundo), Akwand (Calotropis procera), Karanj (Pongamia pinnata), Garlic (Allium sativum) Tulsi (Ocimum Sanctum) Aloe (Aloe barbadensis) Custard Apple (Annona squamosa), Papaya (Carica Papaya), and Onion (Allium cepa). They are successful in safeguard crops against attacks of diverse pests such as Aphids, White flies, Leafhoppers, Thrips, Boring pests and Mildew Rusts.

Because bio-organic pesticides act in a preventive manner farmers are trained to apply them before the pest attack and stay extra vigilant to spot infections.

Using System of Rice Intensification (SRI) techniques to reduce methane emissions and conserve water in rice cultivation. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is a water saving, methane emission reducing rice cultivation strategy. Instead of flooding paddy fields and leaving standing water as in current rice cultivation, SRI consists of watering and draining the fields in a manner that reduces the amount of water required. Essentially, SRI changes agronomy practices in a manner that enables prolific root formation and tillering that leads to more panicles and hence more grains per plant. This has an obvious impact on raising crop yields. And apart from reducing the use of water in crop production, SRI also reduces the build-up of methane by doing away with standing water in rice paddies. SRI has the advantage of increasing yields of traditional varieties of rice and making them attractive for the farmer.

Improving land-use practices to minimise emissions by

  • Not leaving land fallow, which releases substantially carbon and nitrous oxide from soils into the atmosphere, and
  • Adopting low-till and no-till agriculture to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from soil disruption.
  • Not burning crop residues but letting them stay on the field as ground cover. This not only increases organic soil content, the main means of carbon storage in soil, it also reduces GHGs emitted while burning.
  • Using more of manual farm equipment instead of fuel driven machinery to reduce the carbon footprint.
  • Balancing feed rations of livestock to reduce methane emissions as well as improve milk yields of indigenous livestock which is better adapted to extreme weather.
  • Covering piles of manure being stored in the open to reduce nitrous oxide emissions
  • Increasing agro forestry to reduce carbon dioxide
  • Better management of grazing lands through planting of better suited grass varieties to reduce carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions
  • Revitalizing of degraded lands through sustainable agricultural practices for better carbon and nitrous oxide retention in soils.

Building carbon soil banks by planting fertilizer trees to capture and retain carbon in the soil.

Planting perennial crops as they are better suited for underground carbon storage.


C)
Making Agriculture climate resilient by training farmers in adaptation practices. To better cope with the negative impacts of global warming on agriculture, food production, and livelihoods farmers are trained to:

- Understand the political economy of climate change and how India must act at global and national levels and farmers at local levels to address the challenges posed by a changing climate.

- Access, interpret and use Agromet weather data. Gene Campaign has trained local youth to access the new weather advisory service offered by the Ministry of Earth Sciences and disseminate it to farmers through a mobile telephony service. This Agromet service is providing reasonable weather and rainfall data in real time, it is able to predict the onset of the monsoons and in the hands of farmers it is of crucial help as they are able to plan their nursery raising and transplanting of the rice crop. Earlier when farmers planted their nurseries according to the accustomed weather cycle and the rains did not come on time, the seed was lost and there was no more seed to be had resulting in the loss of the entire cropping season. This has changed with the Agromet data being made available to farmers.

- Adopt water conservation and management strategies. As the climate becomes more variable farmers are having to strategically plan to get maximum use from water including rainwater harvesting and traditional water storage structures such as the 10X10X10 farm pond. Rain water harvesting is an important step in the route to self-sufficiency as agriculture in hilly terrain is predominantly dependent on rains. Gene Campaign has trained farmers in constructing water storage tanks and through village SHGs has constructed rainwater harvesting and water storage tanks in some villages of Uttarakhand and Jharkhand. But to make water harvesting more sustainable and scalable, GeneCampaign is advocating for the linking of NREGA wages to the creation of water bodies and harvesting structures.

Developing watershed areas is another activity where communities are assessing their water sources and the ways to make best use of them. Catchment area recharge treatments are being allowed for aquifers to replenish, some of which have been decreasing at alarming rates. In many places receiving increasingly variable rainfall, micro-irrigation is being adopted as a means to administer life-saving irrigation to crops.

- Adopt soil management techniques to increase the organic content of the soils. To have productive soils farmers are being trained to follow the eco-system approach to agricultural production, which uses crop rotation to maintain an appropriate balance of soil nutrients. They also use the bioorganic approach to pest management which is not deleterious to beneficial soil organisms as the agrochemical approach is.

Planting hedgerows of leguminous plants to fix nitrogen (an important plant nutrient) in the soil, contour bunding in the hill areas of Uttarakhand by using rocks to terrace slope surfaces is helping to enhance soil health and productivity of upland agricultural lands. Mulching and using other types of soil cover are being helpful in both decreasing soil erosion, and increasing the organic content of soils and their capacity to retain water.


D)
Making crop production sustainable

- Producing and using locally adapted rice varieties and other crops. A major obstacle in maintaining agricultural sustainability in many upland areas is the non-availability of seed choices at the right time. Seed is procured from other states, often late and sometimes of poor quality and more often than not seeds not adapted to local conditions. To overcome this seed of rice varieties suited to upland field conditions is being produced by farmers trained by Gene Campaign. This is helping farmers bring usually neglected upland fields under cultivation and increase their food production.

- Ensuring availability of locally adapted seed of staple and contingency crops along with fodder and green manure crops to cope with variable climate scenarios. Farmers are being trained to in village clusters to multiply seed from good quality ‘foundation seed’ of local varieties provided by research stations and agriculture universities. Seed multiplication has become a decentralized activity managed by farming communities and Self Help Groups (SHGs). Clusters of villages have been organized and trained to multiply and sort the seed, test for viability (germination tests) and package good quality seeds of locally suitable varieties of rice, pulses, oilseeds, and vegetables. This seed is made available for direct sale to farmers by the clusters.

These clusters are not only producing seed of the principal crops of Uttarakhand and Jharkhand they are also maintaining seeds of contingency crops such that may be required in times of failed or delayed monsoons or when farmers have lost the first batch of seed due to monsoon failure and need to sow another crop when the rains ultimately come.

- Maintaining genetic diversity in crop plants to develop drought varieties for the future, and to have a choice of locally adapted seed for variable weather conditions. Farmers have been trained to collect, characterise and conserve germplasm of traditional varieties of paddy have adapted to and suitable for upland, midland and lowland conditions. In Jharkhand out of total collected traditional varieties, 4 varieties have been found suitable and are being cultivated in upland areas, 13 in mid land areas and 61 are being cultivated in the lowland areas. Mid land and low land varieties are suitable for transplanted ecologies while upland varieties are suitable for dry land ecologies.

In both states farmers are helped to organize themselves into kissan (farmer) clubs as well as seed producer groups to congregate a largely fragmented small farmers community into units with specific roles and responsibilities to ensure agricultural practices and decisions continue to make agriculture sustainable now and in the long-term.


E) Building rural capabilities to manage agriculture in changed climates

Gene Campaign is not only training present-day farmers, it is also training local youth to build within villages a cadre of master trainers knowledgeable in the theoretical aspects of climate change as well as practical adaptation and mitigation strategies who will guide and enable farming communities sustain agriculture in the face of a changing climate now and in the long-term.