Climate change is already a reality for a majority of Indian farmers even as plans are being evolved at the government level mostly to create adaptive capabilities; meanwhile, Indian farmers are being forced to adapt to several CC-related changes by themselves because they have no other choice. For no fault of theirs, Indian farmers, like the most marginalized everywhere, are paying a high price for anthropogenic climate change. The worst-hit, as usual, are small and marginal holders in marginalized locations with social disadvantages to begin with. Such farmers have meagre resources to buffer them from the new risks that climate change poses.

Though the agriculture-related Green House Gas emissions cannot be equated in any manner with lifestyle-related GHG emissions and appreciates the ‘common but differentiated action’ demand. Promotion and establishment of sustainable agriculture, even for adaptation reasons, will result in mitigation of GHGs too. Sustainable Agriculture practices in farming are therefore a win-win option where mitigation cannot be interpreted as coming in the way of equitable and just growth of the nation.  These practices contribute to increased food and nutritional security, contribute to sustainability of productive resources and improvements in rural livelihoods. They also lead to mitigation of GHG emissions from farming.

Impacts of agriculture on Climate Change: While climate change affects Indian farming and farmers’ livelihoods adversely, the converse is also true – Indian agriculture, even if not in the same degree as the developed world’s agriculture, does contribute to Climate Change.

Amongst various GHGs that contribute to global warming, CO2 is released through agriculture by way of burning of fossil fuel, crop residues; methane is emitted through agricultural practices like inundated paddy fields, for example; nitrous oxide through fertilizers, combustion of fossil fuels etc. Nitrous oxide has a global warming potential 296 times greater than CO2. In India, it is estimated that 28% of the GHG emissions are from agriculture; about 78% of methane and nitrous oxide emissions are also estimated to be from agriculture.

POTENTIAL OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE AS LOW-GHG, RESILIENT FARMING SYSTEMS

Sustainable Agriculture can be defined as an integrated farming system (with crops, trees, livestock etc.) which is based on locally adapted agro-diverse cropping patterns and use of local resources (natural resources and natural processes), based on local knowledge, skills and innovations[1][2].

Food security: A question that is often posed with regard to sustainable agriculture or organic farming is whether it will be able to feed the growing population. Sustainable agriculture does not imply lowered yields, as experience of successful farmers’ bears out on the ground. This is reinforced by an FAO report (2007) which says that “conversion of global agriculture to organic management, without converting wild lands to agriculture and without using N-fertilisers would result in a global agricultural supply of 2640 to 4380 Kcal/person/day”. A meta-analysis of 133 scientific papers concluded that organic agriculture was particularly competitive under lower yield environments, a feature that is common in developing countries. 

Reduction in GHG emissions: Changes in farming models and practices towards sustainable agriculture offer a significant opportunity at reducing GHG emissions. Organic farms use on an average 33 to 56 per cent less energy per hectare, as per FAO (2007).

Organic farming reduces its fossil fuel dependence in many ways. For instance, for soil productivity management, internal inputs and practices, are used rather than chemical fertilizers. Returning bio-mass to the soil, legume production, crop rotation, mixed cropping etc., are other ways of achieving this. Pest management also does not depend on chemical pesticides but a variety of local resources and practices.

Through practices like System of Rice Intensification, which is mostly based on principles of ecological farming, flooding in rice paddies can be reduced and thereby, methane emissions.

While production of chemical fertilizers is an energy-intensive process that emits CO2 and N2O, application of nitrogen fertilizers makes the soil emit nitrous oxide. These can be avoided through organic farming.

Sustainable agriculture also increases the Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) by incorporating organic materials into the soil. Soil can be a major source of storage of carbon, about twice as much carbon as in the atmosphere. Fertiliser use replaces soil organic matter in intensive systems, which reduces potential sequestration. Crop, tree and livestock integration with a systematic recycling of organic wastes is an integral part of sustainable agriculture.

Creation of resilient systems leading to better adaptation:

Extreme and unpredictable weather conditions are part of the reality of climate change even as temperature rise and changes in rainfall, changes in pest and disease incidence etc., will also be the stark reality for farmers. What the situation then requires are resilient and adaptive farming systems with the least amount of loss to the productive resources, production and the farmer.

Organic farming is also associated with decreased irrigation needs by about 30-50%. This becomes an important part of adaptation in drought conditions.

Potential of Organic Farming beyond purely agricultural technologies: Organic farming often also focuses on consumer behaviour and encourages lower ecological footprints through localized food production and consumption and reducing food miles too.

This paper would like to reinforce that such farming, even though farmers adopting it are at a disadvantage due to lack of support systems in the form of extension, marketing, grassroots institutions etc., is already being practiced successfully in lakhs of acres all over the country. In large government-supported sustainable agriculture projects like Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) in Andhra Pradesh, where women farmers are taking a lead in implementing a large ecological farming project on more than ten lakh acres, it has been found that it is possible to scale up organic farming onto large areas, with sensitive support systems built along with people’s institutions at the village level. The CMSA programme, being implemented since 2005, has shown that farmers do tend to adopt and spread ecological practices at a rapid pace provided they are collectivized into village-level institutions and provided that appropriate extension support is provided from the village upwards. In this programme, available data shows that there has been no fall in yields for farmers shifting to organic farming. Data shows that the village economy stands to gain a lot due to savings on expenditure on external inputs and net incomes of individual farmers rise.

INDIA’S NATIONAL MISSION ON SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE

India has announced a National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in August 2008. As part of the NAPCC Government of India has announced National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSa). The NAPCC’s formulation processes were found to be very top-down and non-participatory by many analysts.

Alternative, horizontal extension systems with farmers’ organizations at the centre are an important part of information-centred addressal of climate change.

There should be an emphasis on falling back on indigenous resources (seeds, animal breeds etc.), which have proven track record of adaptation to stress conditions. The Plan should also make Seeds, as replicable resources in the hands of farmers institutionalised the form of seed banks, as a major thrust and strategy for adaptation. As part of the NMSa, there should be a mechanism evolved to track and monitor genetic erosion for all of the country due to climate change.