Writer’s Note—The writer would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Sh. PV Satheesh, who breathed his last today on March 19, whose great contributions to ecological protection as well as justice in the context of farming will never be forgotten. His work with dalit women farmers has been a source of inspiration for so many good efforts.
Since 1965 there was a rapid increase in the purchase of external inputs by farmers in India and this led to a very rapid increase of costs of farmers despite big subsidies paid by the government on chemical fertilizers. After decades of this trend leading increasingly to serious economic crisis among farmers, sporadic efforts to check these problems started increasing in the form of low external input, higher self-reliant farming systems which did not require purchased inputs in any significant way and in addition produced a much higher diversity of food crops leading to a reduction in dependence on market for purchasing food as well. Most of these efforts grow many more trees for fruits, fodder and other needs.
As improved organic, composted manures have been used in these efforts in place of chemical fertilizers, this has led to a very significant improvement in soil quality, its moisture retention capacity and its organic content. These changes which increase self-reliance of farmers are also in keeping with the concepts of swaraj and gram swaraj which go back to the freedom movement of India but also have enduring relevance.
In February 2023 this writer visited about 25 such villages in 3 states ( Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) where at least some farmers have moved towards such natural/organic/self-reliant farming and spoke to about 250 farmers who have either adopted such farming entirely or else have moved to some extent towards this. These efforts were accompanied by wider water and soil conservation measures, and were helped by activists of five voluntary organizations. He did not find anyone who regretted this choice. There were several who said that the first year or the very initial phase after moving towards natural farming was difficult. There were some who said that the yield from natural farming is still a little lower but they added that after accounting for reduced expenses the net income is nevertheless higher.
What is important is that everyone seemed to be happy with the change they had made. In the case of some farmers land productivity had almost doubled. Due to much reduced costs less productive land that had been ignored earlier was also being carefully cultivated now, its soil health was improving with organic manure and yield on such land had increased beyond expectations. Several of these farmers also said that the improved quality of the produce also fetched higher price in the market and contributed to better health and nutrition in the family, indirectly resulting in economic benefits or reduced health costs as well.
A very important and welcome feature of these efforts has been that these have also proved to be very useful in climate change mitigation as well as adaptation. In a study titled ‘The Great Climate Robbery’ GRAIN, a reputed international organization working on small farmers and sustainable farming based on them has written, “ The expansion of unsustainable agricultural practices over the past century has led to the destruction of between 30 per cent and 75 per cent of the organic matter on arable lands, and 50 per cent of the organic matter on pastures and prairies. This massive loss of organic matter is responsible for between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of the current excess carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.”
On the plus side this study points out that this damage can be undone substantially “simply by restoring the practices small farmers have been engaging in for generations. If the right policies and incentives were in place worldwide, soil organic matter contents could be restored to pre-industrial agriculture levels within a period of 50 years…This would offset between 24 per cent and 30 per cent of all current global greenhouse gas emissions.”
This study emphasizes that farmers can maintain their present yields while giving up chemical fertilizers by using agro-ecology, a fact confirmed by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).—a three year intergovernmental process involving more than 400 scientists. The International Panel for Climate Change has estimated that for every 100 kg. of nitrogen fertilizer applied in the soil, one kg. ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and is the world’s most significant ozone depleting substance. The GRAIN study also pointed out that supply of natural gas for nitrogen fertilizer may now rely more on fracked wells, which leak about 50 per cent more methane gas compared to conventional natural gas wells. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. So the prospects of reducing GHG emissions from reduction of chemical fertilizers is immense, but there are so many other aspects of changing food and agriculture systems to reduce GHG emissions.
By ensuring food consumption close to food production and by reducing miles travelled by food, by cutting down on wasteful processing and packaging, again there can be a big reduction of GHG emissions. Those communities which grow (or collect) almost all their food needs locally can make the most contribution to reducing GHG emission relate to transport, storage and packaging. Those communities which grow a vast biodiversity of food are also likely to be planting and nurturing many more trees which can absorb carbon. A big reduction of chemical pesticides and herbicides has been demanded time and again for so many other reasons including health and safety above all ,but in addition this will also help significantly in reducing GHG emissions.
GHG emissions are known to be very high in the big plantations and livestock operations taken up by giant agro-business corporations and GHG reductions can be reduced by meeting food needs from other sources and redistributing the huge land holdings of these big operators among landless and near landless peasants and farm workers.
There are numerous creative ways of reducing GHG emissions in food and farming system, and in these very important efforts we can learn a lot from traditional farming wisdom. Traditional farming methods had been able to maintain and enhance soil organic matter for several centuries while industrial extractive farming systems have depleted soil organic matter very rapidly. Hence there is much to learn from traditional farming methods in this and related contexts.
Climate change adaptation is also almost as important as mitigation. In the context of adaptation, the importance of low-cost and self-reliant farming systems is very obvious as these farmers are much more capable of responding to adverse weather situations without getting caught in any crisis situation. Such systems are also likely to be much more creative and innovative.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, A Day in 2071 and Man over Machine.