The 26th session of Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the UNFCCC has sparked many conversations on climate change and how we can mitigate the impact. A paper on the perspective of Least Developed Countries, released earlier this year, cites the needs of nations most acutely threatened by climate change, and says COP 26 cannot succeed without delivering for the most vulnerable.
Agriculture is one of the most vulnerable sectors owing to its high dependence on climate and weather conditions. India is one of the largest food producers in the world, with about 68% of its 1.3 billion population directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture. Though agricultural contribution to GDP has gone down from 51% in the 1950s to around 16%, the number of households dependant on agriculture have increased from 70 million in 1951 to 120 million in 2020. This massive dependence on agriculture makes India more vulnerable to climate change. According to the Economic Survey of 2017 – the country incurs losses to the tune of USD 9-10 billion annually due to extreme weather conditions. It is a key challenge for food security and rural livelihoods in the country.
Key challenges aggravating climate change
Even though the dependence on agriculture has increased, the arable land has been decreasing in size as well as quality, reducing the average size of land holdings to 1.08 hectares. Division of cultivable land into smaller pieces coupled with negligent soil management is increasing the rate of degradation of land. Over and above this, according to CSE, 30% of India land mass is currently undergoing desertification.
In 2019, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that "land degradation is a driver of climate change through emission of greenhouse gases and reduced rates of carbon uptake". It's a vicious cycle as the socioeconomic effects of climate change accelerate land degradation. Climate changes have also led to unpredictable weather and natural crises - be it drought, pandemic, cyclones, heavy rains, or floods. Increased unpredictability in humidity, temperature and precipitation disrupt the traditional agricultural calendar with intense bursts of extreme weather.
Increased water use in irrigation has resulted in a continued decline in India's per capita water availability — by 60% over the last 50 years, accelerating land degradation. Furthermore, 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 the agricultural exports. This depletion not only accelerates climate change, but also leads to lower productivity over consequent growth cycles.
As per estimates, climate change adversely impacts agricultural output by about 4-9% each year, affecting around 1.5% loss in GDP annually. India trails most countries on agricultural productivity. For instance, the productivity of maize, rice, groundnut, and pulses are 54%, 40%, 31%, and 33% lower than their respective global averages. All these factors have made it challenging 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 uphill task in the form of mitigating the impact of climate change on agriculture and 145 million households.
Opportunity Areas: 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 immediate need for the agricultural sector to adopt leading-edge technological interventions couple with sustainability and enabling policy support, to mitigate the impact of climate change and improve farm productivity.
State-of-the-art technologies including AI, IoT, machine learning, blockchain, precision agriculture, drones, smart tractors/ agri-bots, smart warehousing and transport optimisation, real-time yield estimation and price information apart from newer crop protection technologies will transform the sector by enabling traceability, real-time visibility, higher productivity, and superior quality, while reducing the carbon footprint and increasing profits. Precision agriculture leverages data analytics to maximize the efficiency of water, fertilizer and pesticides through optimal usage, to improve overall productivity, quality, and yield of the crops. Drones can help farmers with soil and field planning, crop monitoring, crop protection from weeds, pests and diseases, alleviate labour pressure and increase productivity. Leading agricultural sciences Companies like FMC, are embracing such technologies to become solution providers rather than remaining only an input supplier. Similarly, enhancing productivity of the milch animals and addressing the methane emissions emanating out of dairy sector would be crucial.
Sustainable practices such as crop rotation, mixed cropping with pulses, using biofertilizers, judicious use of pesticides or fertilisers, and integrated pest management — need to be encouraged and promoted to address the environmental challenges posed by agricultural activities. Conservation of natural resources can be driven via - drip irrigation and enhanced solarization of agriculture. There is a dire need for investment for development and distribution of climate-resilient crops that can handle fluctuations in temperature and precipitation. There is a need to focus on knowledge exchange and capacity building among farmers and agriculture extension workers on sustainable agricultural practices. Leading agricultural companies including FMC India are working closely with farmer communities to drive soil, water and input stewardship in the production process.
Furthermore, there is a necessity to redirect government support at various levels to help farmers. The government must promote resource conservation while producing rewarding outcomes like total farm productivity and not merely yields. The need of the hour is to replace subsidy on electricity for drawing irrigation water, with the adoption of drip irrigation and installation of solar panels. Incentivising the production of water- and nutrient-efficient crops (millets & pulses) that replenish the soil and utilise less water by announcing a lucrative MSP and input subsidies for farmers will be a step in the right direction. It is critical to reconsider providing subsidies for crops (sugarcane and paddy) with an adverse impact on the natural resource availability. Building and leveraging the integration capabilities of FPOs will ensure sustainability of agriculture and farmers.
India was one of the first developing countries to prioritise food security as a policy goal and 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 transformation in agriculture for sustainable food production and mitigating the impact of climate change. It is critical to create suitable agricultural-reforms and incentive systems for farmers to adopt sustainable practices, promote organisations that can create impact through sustainable solutions, educate consumers and farmers and reorient the agriculture sector from a subsistence-driven to demand-driven sustainable farming.