Farming under the changing skies

As climate change drastically affects agriculture production, reviving traditional practices and community sharing remains the only solution
Thursday, September 20, 2012

Keshari Sahu is a happy farmer. When scanty and irregular rainfall resulted in heavy damage to the Kharif paddy crop at his village in Balangir district of Odisha last year, he decided to grow Gurjee millet on his three acre farm instead of cotton. The harvest not only ensured food security for his family but also earned him Rs 7,000 in cash. The fact that Gurjee required no use of chemical fertilisers and was harvested wthin two months meant the profit margin was higher while the effort required was much less.

On the other hand, consequent drought in the area accentuated the food insecurity, especially among small and marginal farmers of the district who took to the regular cycle of paddy and cotton. While climate change is leading to high losses of agriculture production, farmers like Sahu are cleverly adapting to the scenario by reviving tradtional practices. 'Climate Change and Indian Agriculture: Implications and Way Forward ', a study conducted by ActionAid in collaboration with Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Hyderabad, analyses how farmers are being affected by a changing climate and how they are adapting to it through local innovations. Here are some excerpts from the report:

Agriculture and climate change: Cause and effect

One of the critical sectors for human survival is agriculture. It is also one of the sectors that climate change will have the worst impact on. Very high losses of agricultural production – there are estimates ranging from 20-40 per cent - including in production of food crops, are expected to occur, especially in Africa and South Asia. Yet, climate change is already a reality for Indian farmers. The impacts of climate change are already visible. A network of 15 centers of Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR) has reported that apple production is declining in Himachal Pradesh due to inadequate chilling. This is also causing a shift in the growing zone to higher elevations. Similarly in the case of marine fisheries, it has been observed that sardines are shifting from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, which is not their normal habitat.

Apple production is declining in Himachal Pradesh due to inadequate chilling. This is  causing a shift in the growing zone to higher elevations. Similarly, sardines are shifting from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, which is not their normal habitat.

Marginal and small food producers are worst-hit because they already face enormous social and economic disadvantages. Such farmers represent the bulk (94 per cent) of the farming population in the country. They largely rely on rainfed agriculture, forests and fisheries, but many are located in more exposed or marginal areas, such as flood plains or nutrient-poor soils. Agriculture, apart from being a victim of climate change, is also a sector that is thought to contribute to it.

In India according to various estimates, it is suggested that agriculture could contribute around 25-30 per cent of national emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The fertilizer, pesticide, water intensive agriculture contributes around 14 per cent of total emissions. The two biggest culprits of agriculture related emissions are nitrous oxides and methane. The green revolution driven agriculture sector is responsible for 75 per cent of the world’s total nitrous oxide emissions and 50 per cent of the total methane emissions.

In India, the Southwest monsoon is responsible for nearly 50 per cent of the food grains production and 65 per cent of the oilseeds. There are two major cropping seasons, the Kharif and the Rabi. The Kharif season typically lasts from May-September/October (depending on when the monsoon arrives and ends) and the Rabi season lasts from October/November-April. The moisture retained in the soil from the summer monsoons serves this season in rainfed areas.

But planting times for both seasons are shifting all across India due to rain variability. Kharif rainfall is going to increase in parts of India and this might be positive for Kharif crops such as rice, pulses and various edible oilseeds. A one-degree temperature rise may not have significant implications for productivity of kharif crops if there is adequate rain. However, the projections of temperature rise are higher past 2030. For the Rabi season, even a 1 degree temperature rise will severely impact production of wheat, a critical food-grain crop. This loss may be reduced to 1-2 million tons if farmers shift planting times effectively according to the shift in rainfall patterns.

Pplanting times for both Kharif and Rabi crops are shifting due to rain variability. A one-degree temperature rise may not have significant implications for productivity of kharif crops if there is adequate rain. For the Rabi season, even a 1 degree temperature rise will severely impact production of wheat, a critical food-grain crop.

Sowing hope, reaping nothingness

In Ananthpur district of Andhra Pradesh, farmers used to grow sorghum (jowar) and seven kinds of millets because of limited rain in the region. Millets adapted very well to arid conditions and also ensured food security. The pest incidence in millets was less and local cultural practices also led to better pest management. In the 70s, farmers were introduced to groundnut which has now become the main income source for farmers as a cash crop. Though groundnut is nitrogen-fixing in soils, its monoculture planting, season after season has led to severe soil depletion and pest build-up. Also unlike millets, groundnut is much more affected by rainfall patterns.

The first four months after plantation are critical and typically need irrigation to achieve a good harvest. However, erratic and less rainfall has changed the living conditions of the farmers. In the past, the first monsoon showers arrived in the district by the first week of June, but during last five years, the first monsoon showers have been delayed till mid July. This delay has altered the sowing dates for groundnut, thereby throwing agricultural activities completely out of gear. Similarly, untimely rains during the harvesting season ruin the yield.

According to area's farmers, the conventional wisdom of planetary positions and karthes (seasons) played a crucial role in determining when the crop had to be sown in the past. It was during arudra karthe (the arrival of the first showers) that the sowing of the seed used to happen. Accordingly, all other agricultural operations were planned and implemented. However, majority of farmers now observe that this traditional knowledge is rendered meaningless with the delays in the arrival of the first showers.

Conventional wisdom of planetary positions and seasons played a crucial role in determining when the crop had to be sown in the past. It was during the arrival of the first showers that the sowing of the seed used to happen. However, farmers now observe that this knowledge is rendered meaningless with delay in arrival of first showers.

Cash crops yield peanuts 

Since the 1960s, Odisha has chronically dealt with floods, droughts and cyclones with varying intensity. This has impacted food production severely in the years when these extreme events have occurred during the crop season. For instance between 1990-2007, Odisha’s farmers faced drought, floods, cyclones, moisture stress or several of these conditions simultaneously in 12 out of 17 years. Due to the frequent occurrences of these natural calamities, there is always reduction in Kharif yields. Similarly in drought years, there is considerable loss in production of pulses and oilseeds both during Kharif and Rabi.

The farmers, therefore, engage in a variety of activities for their livelihood. They farm, collect and sell minor forest produces (MFPs), especially the kendu leaf and mahua flowers, and rear livestock. Mahua flowers are sold for making popular traditional liquor while kendu leaves are used to make bidis. Agriculture still remains their primary source of income for six months. They grow paddy and pulses as the main crops and varieties of millets like Ragi, Gurji etc, and vegetables like tomatoes, brinjal (eggplant), chili, onion and okra/lady fingers as the supplementary food crops. During the drought season when the paddy crop failed, millets provided the best food security to most of the families. However, things have changed drastically now.

Though cotton was grown as cash crops earlier too, since 2005 Bt Cotton is being aggressively promoted in large tract of the district, replacing the traditional drought resistant crops like millets. After the initial years of good yield, the yields of Bt Cotton decreased by one- third. Communities attribute this to higher temperatures and prolonged dry spells along with monoculture practices.

According to locals, Western Odisha is increasingly experiencing desert-like climate with increasing day time temperatures and colder night-temperatures. It is also ironic to note that large scale maize production as a cash crop is being promoted in this chronic drought-prone district, given the fact that maize needs more water. According to the communities, the combination of increasing dry spells and rising input costs is making farming unviable. Around 14,000 hectare of land has been diverted from agriculture to non-agricultural use in 16 years. Though Balangir boasts to have a network of traditional water harvesting systems which provide life saving irrigation to the crops during the drought or moisture stress period, this unique system of traditional water management has remained unused due to lack of maintenance and renovation of the water bodies.

Deceived by the clouds

Drought in Lalitpur District of Uttar Pradesh used to occur once in 16 years or so. However, the frequency has increased dramatically in recent years. There was continuous drought for four years from 2004-08. In the following year when there was drought in several parts of UP there was excessive rainfall in the region causing massive runoff and soil erosion from the barren hills which swelled up the seasonal streams and rivers. Rainfall patterns are changing and the quantity of rain overall is decreasing. However, this was not the case about 10 to 15 years ago.

Rains generally started in June and continued until October. Sometimes, it also rained in the winters, which was very useful for crops. Not only have the rains been decreasing for about a decade now, the number of rainy days has also gone down drastically. Farmers from Dudhai village maintained that years ago when it rained regularly, coarse grains such as jowar (sorghum) and bajra (pearl millet) were cultivated even in the pathari (rocky) land of the village, but now such land has remained barren for more than a decade.

Rains generally started in June and continued until October. Sometimes, it also rained in the winters, which was very useful for crops. Not only have the rains been decreasing for about a decade now, the number of rainy days has also gone down drastically.

Similarly, about 75 acre of once arable landholding in Sipri village has been transformed into barren land due to erratic rainfall. Gradually, virtually all traditional varieties of crops disappeared from fields—not only because of weather, but also due to interest in growing cash crops such as wheat and maize. Farmers also complained about wide swings in rainfall from year to year. In 2010, maize planted in 150 acre was destroyed due to scanty rainfall and in 2011, the crop was damaged due to heavy rain.

Moisture related changes have impacted in other ways as well. For instance, until the 1980s, morning fog was common in November-December. It usually lasted for 15-20 days and helped pulses and oilseed crops like arhar, gram, masoor and mustard to ripen because of the moisture it provided in the form of dew. The fog and hence the dew has not been present since 15-20 years and because of its disappearance, crops develop prematurely without the grains having fully developed.

Smarting the change

Aggressive extension service of the government to promote green revolution model of agriculture has left little choice for the farming communities to grow and sustain traditional crops which are mostly suitable to the dry regions. Farmers’ dependence on buying inputs such as fertilizer and seed is increasing their input costs while yields continue to decline. The situation can be reversed with concerted and imaginative actions.

The small and marginal and tenant farmers, who own less than 2 hectare of land and produce around 50 per cent of the total crop production, would lead the change process. Many of them are still practising low input agriculture and in the face of massive agrarian crisis they would play the pivotal role in reversing the situation from input intensive agriculture to climate resilient farming.

The farmers, who own less than 2 hectare of land and produce around 50 per cent of the total crop production, would lead the change process. Many of them are still practising low input agriculture and they would play the pivotal role in reversing the situation from input intensive agriculture to climate resilient farming.

At Battalapalli village in Ananthpur district of Andhra Pradesh, a few farmers are sowing short-duration drought-resistant pulse crops like horsegram in September instead of sowing groundnut in July. Also, mixed cropping with beans, red gram, green gram and millets is making a return. Both pearl and finger millet, as well as locally grown pulses are better adapted to Ananthpur’s climate. They are not only more drought and heat resistant, but also need less water and have shorter growing cycles.

Furthermore, their crop residues make good fodder that can be dried and stored over the year, thus keeping livestock healthy as well. At Dugaria village of Lalitpur district in Uttar Pradesh, a farmer has started using only local manure and organic fertiliser preparations made at home on his 9 acre land. He planted masoor (a type of pulse), gram and wheat in 3, 2 and 4 acre respectively. It was noted that his fields produced more harvest than others. He firmly believes that if his community gets back its traditional seeds and starts using manure again, their land will improve, climate-related risks will be reduced and they will get rid of debt too.

Mukund Sargia at Silet Pada village of Balangir district in Odisha took to traditional paddy seeds in drought season. Last year, monsoon rainfall in Balangir district was extremely irregular, erratic and scanty. Those who raised paddy seedling in the nursery bed suffered heavy losses as it could not be planted in land due to shortage of water in the field. Sargia had broadcasted traditional paddy seed including Nenka, Saria, Budelphuli, and Saan chergudi in 4 acre of his land. This crop was also affected by the drought but fortunately all the seeds used in this field could be recollected. To tide over the crisis, Sagaria renovated an old well and took up cultivation of vegetables. “Traditional variety of seeds can withstand the drought and ensure returns even if there is total crop failure. This has not been possible in case of high yielding/hybrid paddy seed,” he says.

Seeds, Biodiversity, Mixed Crops: Beej Bachao Andolan

Community-based organisations such as the Beej Bachao Andolan and organisations with scientific expertise such as the Gene Campaign are just two of many organisations and communities working together to bring back locally grown seeds to address climate variability and high costs. The success of mixed crop farming can be witnessed in the Uttarakhand state of the middle Himalayas. “Fasal Chakra” or crop cycle is a method of farming adapted to the climatic conditions. Mixed cropping of “Barah Anaaj” or 12 food grains is done prior to the Kharif season. In different regions, these seeds are sown from mid-May to mid-June and harvested from mid-September to mid-October. These fields are left fallow after that, and are prepared again at the end of March. Farmyard manure is applied. Paddy and barnyard millet are sown and harvested by end September. In the Rabi season, wheat, barley and masur dal is grown and harvested by end April. Again in the third year, 12 grains mixed cropping is done.

While these cereals, pulses, and oil seeds provide all the nutritional requirements of the farmers, this system is more or less free of pests and diseases. Even if it exists, only one or two crops in the mixture are affected. The rich biodiversity protects the other crops. Even in the case of heavy wind or storm, only one or two crops are affected. The ragi, pulses and oil seeds also show resistance against drought. At sowing time, the fields are very dry and the air is dusty. After one ploughing, ragi is sown and it needs only one shower to germinate. Ragi can survive even an extreme drought. Again, after a light rain and sunny period, inter-cultivation is done with the help of bullocks and local implements. Modern agricultural science, however, emphasises only on mono-cropping.

The agricultural scientists criticise the “Barah Anaaj” system of cropping as backward and uneconomical. Instead, they promote the growing of soyabean as a monocrop. The government and the scientists of G.B. Pant Agriculture University promoted soyabean as a cash, oil, fuel and protein crop with free seeds and fertiliser kits. However, farmers in the area boycotted such cash crops through “Beej Bachao Andolan” and also posed questions as to how growing soyabean, supplied to big industries and multinational companies, can help meet their food requirements.

Planting short-cycle crops

In flood-prone areas (large swathes of the state of Bihar for instance), short cycle crops can be grown that withstand heat and ripen before heavy rains result in flooding. Narendra 97 is a good example of a short cycle paddy crop grown in UP that withstands intense heat, ripens in a shorter period than the commonly used paddy. It has proven effective in flood prone areas. Barnyard Millet is another short cycle coarse grain grown n the flood-prone Madhubani district of Bihar which can be harvested prior to the floods and is hearty against high temperatures. A compilation of such homegrown short cycle crops should be created, utilised, disseminated and field-tested in conjunction with food growers in different parts of the country.

In flood-prone areas (large swathes of the state of Bihar for instance), short cycle crops can be grown that withstand heat and ripen before heavy rains result in flooding.

Reviving watersheds, supporting livelihoods

Water stress has been identified as a major issue for the sub-continent. Heavy rains and severe droughts are already common in this part of the world. Communities and organisations such as the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan and Western Odisha Rural Livelihood Project (WORLP) have demonstrated that ecosystems, where water is scarce can be revived through a range of imaginative approaches.

In western Odisha greater challenges are faced by the people: fertile lands positioned between the Udanti and Harida rivers produced bumper crops until flash floods hit. Instead of bringing fertility typical with flood plains, the floods of July 2006 left about 130 acre of standing crop waist deep in sand or “sand cast”. Water harvesting work undertaken by WORLP helps to prevent future flash floods and simultaneously provides support to marginal farmers already affected. Water storage structures and soil and water conservation, developed in partnership with communities through participatory micro planning and the use of local labour, has provided more immediate ground water recharge, reducing intra-annual fluctuation in the water table and improving hydrological and soil moisture conditions.

Water storage structures and soil and water conservation, developed in partnership with communities, has provided more immediate ground water recharge and improving hydrological and soil moisture conditions.

Interventions have also had marked effects on groundwater tables which have been raised by as much as 2 to 4 metres on an average. Water harvesting technologies have also checked runoff and reduced sediments, enhancing crop production and the productivity of water resources, which now incorporate fish farming. Through increased water availability the land use patterns have changed, permitting a second crop during the rabi season. Farmers have been supported to increase their skills in cropping, agricultural diversification, vegetable gardens, aquaculture, ducks, goats and other livelihood activities. This increase in skills enables people to adapt their livelihoods, and build resilience to climate changes and shocks.

CR Pally village in Ananthpur district of Andhra Pradesh is another example of how changing our priorities can help deal with variations in the weather. Growth of groundwater-based irrigation resulting in receding of water table was a growing concern in the village. Due to this, not only the bore wells were failing frequently, farmers were getting under increasing debt due to investment on new bore wells. The competition between neighbouring farmers often led them to drill bore wells as close as 2 m etre apart.

Intervention by the Centre for World Solidarity (CWS) in partnership with local grassroot NGO Jana Jagriti, led to formation of small groups of farmers between a bore well owner and 2 or 3 neighbouring farmers who did not own bore wells. Bore well owners were explained how drilling new wells in the vicinity of their wells may render them dry due to competitive extraction of groundwater. They were encouraged instead to share a portion of water from their wells with neighbours. Now there are 34 functional tube wells shared between 56 farmers in the village and new borewells were drilled for last three years.

Bore well owners were explained how drilling new wells in the vicinity of their wells may render them dry due to competitive extraction of groundwater. They were encouraged instead to share a portion of water from their wells with neighbours.

Scaling up from the ground

Sustainable agricultural approaches are now acknowledged for a wide set of ecological and economic benefits for producers as well as consumers. These approaches use low levels of energy and are less polluting because they are based on low external inputs. They thus help in adapting to climate change and lower the carbon footprint of agriculture at the same time.However, the practicality of scaling up sustainable agriculture practices is often questioned.

In the last few years, two large scale initiatives- Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) in Andhra Pradesh and System of Rice Intensification in states of Tripura, Odisha and Tamil Nadu have provided new knowledge and proven that such practices can be scaled up if carried out with farmer input and participation and without big, costly “techno-fixes.”

Knowledge-generation, innovation and experiments are happening all across India right now by farmers. It is imperative that the government agencies tasked with the challenge of climate change adaptation integrate these learnings in adaptation-oriented research, development and implementation by accepting farmers as equal partners in these initiatives.

Read the full report 

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