Fighting climate change to transform the agricultural sector in India
The increase in water use for irrigation has led to a continuous decline in per capita water availability in India – by 60% over the past 50 years, accelerating land degradation.
By Raju Kapoor
The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the UNFCCC sparked many conversations about climate change and how we can mitigate its impact. A Least Developed Countries Perspective paper, released earlier this year, cites the needs of the nations most at risk from climate change, and argues that COP 26 cannot succeed without providing solutions for the most vulnerable.
Agriculture is one of the most vulnerable sectors due to its strong dependence on climate and weather conditions. India is one of the largest food producers in the world, with around 68% of its 1.3 billion people working directly or indirectly in agriculture. Although the contribution of agriculture to GDP has fallen from 51% in the 1950s to around 16%, the number of households dependent on agriculture has increased from 70 million in 1951 to 120 million in 2020. This massive dependence on agriculture makes India more vulnerable to climate change. change. According to the 2017 economic study, the country suffers losses in the range of 9 to 10 billion dollars per year due to extreme weather conditions. This is a major challenge for food security and rural livelihoods in the country.
Main challenges aggravating climate change
Even though reliance on agriculture has increased, arable land has shrunk in size as well as quality, reducing the average size of land holdings to 1.08 hectares. The division of cultivable land into smaller plots, coupled with careless land management, is accelerating the rate of land degradation. Beyond that, according to the CSE, 30% of India’s land mass is currently undergoing desertification.
In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that “Land degradation is a driver of climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases and reduced absorption rates of carbon”. It is a vicious circle as the socio-economic effects of climate change accelerate land degradation. Climate change has also brought unpredictable meteorological and natural crises – be it droughts, pandemics, cyclones, heavy rains or floods. The increased unpredictability of humidity, temperature and rainfall disrupts the traditional agricultural calendar with intense episodes of extreme weather.
The increase in water use for irrigation has led to a continuous decline in per capita water availability in India – by 60% over the past 50 years, accelerating land degradation. Additionally, being one of the world’s leading exporters of water-intensive crops such as rice and sugarcane, we end up exporting water (virtual water) along with agricultural exports. This depletion not only accelerates climate change, but also leads to lower productivity during subsequent growth cycles.
It is estimated that climate change negatively impacts agricultural production by around 4-9% each year, resulting in a loss of around 1.5% of GDP per year. India lags behind most countries in terms of agricultural productivity. For example, the productivity of maize, rice, groundnuts and pulses is 54%, 40%, 31% and 33% lower than their respective world averages. All of these factors have made it difficult to ensure food security – with only 2.4% of the world’s total land area, India has to support around 18% of the world’s population. We face an arduous task of mitigating the impact of climate change on agriculture and 145 million households.
Areas of Opportunity: Technology, Sustainability and Policy Support
India needs to rejuvenate at least 30 million hectares of barren land to reverse land degradation by 2030. There is an urgent need for the agriculture sector to adopt advanced technological interventions coupled with sustainability and supportive policy support, to mitigate the impact of climate change and improve agricultural productivity.
Advanced technologies including AI, IoT, machine learning, blockchain, precision agriculture, drones, smart tractors/farm robots, smart warehousing and transportation optimization, labor estimation Real-time yield and price information, in addition to new crop protection technologies, will transform the industry by enabling traceability, real-time visibility, increased productivity and higher quality, while reducing carbon footprint and increasing profits. Precision agriculture leverages data analytics to maximize the efficiency of water, fertilizers and pesticides through optimal use, to improve overall productivity, quality and crop yield. Drones can help farmers plan soils and fields, monitor crops, protect crops from weeds, pests and diseases, reduce labor pressure and increase productivity . Leading agricultural science companies like FMC are embracing these technologies to become solution providers rather than just an input provider. Similarly, improving the productivity of dairy animals and tackling methane emissions from the dairy sector would be crucial.
Sustainable practices such as crop rotation, mixed cropping with legumes, use of biofertilizers, judicious use of pesticides or fertilizers and integrated pest management – must be encouraged and promoted to address the environmental challenges posed by agricultural activities. Conservation of natural resources can be promoted through drip irrigation and improved solarization of agriculture. There is an urgent need for investment in the development and distribution of climate-resistant crops that can withstand fluctuations in temperature and rainfall. There is a need to focus on knowledge exchange and capacity building of farmers and agricultural extension agents on sustainable agricultural practices. Leading agricultural companies, including FMC India, work closely with farming communities to promote responsible management of soil, water and inputs in the production process.
In addition, there is a need to redirect government support at different levels to help farmers. Government must promote resource conservation while producing rewarding results like total agricultural productivity and not just yields. The need of the hour is to replace the subsidies on electricity for the drawing of water for irrigation, by the adoption of drip irrigation and the installation of solar panels. Encouraging the production of water and nutrient efficient crops (millets and pulses) that replenish the soil and use less water by announcing a lucrative MSP and input subsidies for farmers will be a step in the right direction. It is essential to reconsider the granting of subsidies to crops (sugar cane and paddy) which have a negative impact on the availability of natural resources. Strengthening and harnessing the integration capacities of OPAs will ensure the sustainability of agriculture and farmers.
India was one of the first developing countries to prioritize food security as a policy objective and to become self-sufficient in the production of food grains in the 1970s with the green revolution. Technology and innovation will drive the next wave of agricultural transformation for sustainable food production and mitigating the impact of climate change. It is essential to create appropriate agricultural reforms and incentive systems for farmers to adopt sustainable practices, to promote organizations that can create impact through sustainable solutions, to educate consumers and farmers and to redirect the agricultural sector from sustainable subsistence-oriented agriculture to sustainable demand-oriented agriculture.
(The author is Director of Public and Industry Affairs, FMC India. All opinions are personal)