Integrated farming systems emerge as possible climate adaptation solution

  • Integrated farming system (IFS) is emerging as a nature-based solution to boosting productivity in climate-stressed regions.
  • Farmers in the eastern Himalayas and coastal Bengal improve incomes with IFS.
  • Better indicators for the assessment of IFS are needed.

A “whole-farm” approach or integrated farming systems that supplement traditional crops with farming vegetables, fruits, poultry or fish is re-emerging as a nature-based solution to boosting productivity in climate-stressed regions.

New research from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in India’s eastern Himalayas, where farming is turning increasingly risky due to climatic uncertainty, has shown that productivity and income of farmers “improved substantially” when they adopted a pond-based integrated farming system (IFS).

Small and marginal farmers in the area lack resources and are unable to adopt new, improved technologies, the report by a team of ICAR scientists says. A whole-farm approach or pond-based IFS, however, helped increase production, employment and income by generating a mix of enterprises based on rice, vegetables, fruits, fish, pigs and poultry.

The ICAR study, conducted on 11 farm pond-based IFS models, covering 22.5 hectares of 150 farmers’ fields in the South Garo Hills district of Meghalaya, from 2009 to 2014, showed a substantial improvement in the farmer’s livelihoods.

The integrated farming system adopted, tapped into on-farm resources and reduced dependence on external inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. The study found that the net returns under an integrated system that included ponds, rice, vegetables and pigs were eight times higher than the normal farmer practice of growing a single crop.

Agronomist Anup Das, principal scientist at the ICAR research complex for the northeast hill region in Agartala, and of the authors of the study, told Mongabay-India that earlier, farmers had a small farm pond in the humid tropical and subtropical areas of the region. They used the pond for growing a few fish, for irrigation during dry times and for domestic uses.

“However, most of these ponds are either underutilised or not renovated over a long time,” or used for some other purpose, Das says.  But scientific fish farming and multiple uses of water for growing vegetables, livestock and irrigation can enhance productivity, income and employment; as well as resilience against climate change, he says.  The integrated farming approach provides year-round production, employment and income, reducing farming risks during climate uncertainty, he adds.

In water-stressed areas, such as semi-arid areas, rainwater harvesting is a proven technology, says Das. In such areas adoption of IFS models comprising multipurpose trees, livestock especially goats, crops with low water requirements such as millets and pulses, and adoption of micro-irrigation with harvested water may be a solution, he suggests. Ponds could require an additional inner lining to make them more durable, Das suggests.

IFS promotes farmers’ knowledge, and efficient recycling of on-farm resources; and reduces dependence on external resources, says Das. It suits small and marginal farmers, but they could require some initial support for constructing ponds, livestock units, compost units, and an irrigation system.

Pond based IFS site before (left) and after (right) development of IFS underNational Agricultural Innovation Project.
Pond based IFS site before (left) and after (right) development of IFS under National Agricultural Innovation Project. Photo from study.

A second report by a team that includes scientists from IIT, Kharagpur, and Ramakrishna Mission in coastal West Bengal, which looked at viable and sustainable farming, says that IFS can enhance farm sustainability in stressed ecosystems.

The study assessed the sustainability of an integrated farming system in 140 small-scale farms in the Sundarbans region, using an indicator-based approach. Farmers on the highly sustainable farms effectively collected and used sweet water, produced on-farm biomass, and used sustainable farming practices. The sustainability was influenced by farm size and soil fertility, and non-farm factors such as remittances from migrant family members.

“Future research may explore how these farms may be used to achieve ‘strong’ agricultural sustainability in the coastal agroecosystems,” the report says.

Although the report did not specifically address climate change, “it is very likely that IFS will enhance the resilience of farms against climatic stresses,” says Rupak Goswami, a scientist from Ramakrishna Mission and one of the authors of the study.

In coastal regions, water bodies on farms are used to capture sweet (non-saline) water that can be used to irrigate crops during water stress, says Goswami. Land shaping is a popular technique followed by Sundarban’s farmers, with thoughtful excavation to collect water and enhance farm resilience and income. “Also, the high biodiversity in IFS mitigates climate risks,” says Goswami.

The basic principles of integrated farming will work in both coastal and water-stressed areas, but the details would be different. In dry regions, livestock would enhance incomes, whereas, in coastal regions, water bodies help. “Our hypothesis (not examined in this paper) is that ‘integration’ in IFS is a manifestation of adaptation against external drivers, including climatic stress, and it is not necessary that it works in water affluent regions,” says Goswami.

Goswami sees integrated farming as “multifunctional farming that also builds resilience against climatic challenges.” IFS is an evolved system, it adapts to climate change, market forces and many other bio-physical stresses, he says.

While scientists have developed IFS models for different agroclimatic zones in India, their adoption has been problematic. “Promoting IFS as models may not work as such. It needs to be designed and crafted in participation with farmers,” says Goswami.

Rekindled interest in integrated farming

The attempts to find sustainable, nature-based solutions have intensified with the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, beginning 2021. Researchers have created a guide for designing agricultural development projects that use solutions from nature. A report in Frontiers in Environmental Science, in August 2021, says that nature-based solutions (NBS) “are at the forefront of the sustainability discourse” in this decade. These solutions are applied more frequently in urban, natural forest or wetland ecosystems, but are “underutilised in agricultural landscapes,” it says.

The authors have proposed a technical framework to characterise NBS in agricultural systems, envisaged as “the use of natural processes or elements to improve ecosystem functions of environments and landscapes affected by agricultural practices, and to enhance livelihoods and other social and cultural functions, over various temporal and spatial scales.”

The framework establishes four essential functions for NBS in agriculture: sustainable practices with a focus on production; green infrastructure, mainly for engineering purposes such as water and soil, and slope stabilisation; amelioration for restoration of conditions for plants, water, soil or air and climate change mitigation; and conservation with a focus on biodiversity and ecosystem connectivity.

India is making some efforts on this front. For example, under the Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network (RRA Network) in India, has initiated integrated farming under a project in tribal areas of Odisha, which integrates the best practices of agriculture, livestock and fisheries.

India’s efforts are in line with other countries’ attempts to improve productivity sustainably. For example, Chinese farmers are using ‘mulberry plot fish ponds’ in which combines fish farming with mulberry cultivation and sericulture. Here, mud or humus from fish ponds serves as nutrients for mulberry trees, and excreta from fish ponds as fertiliser.

Similarly, in Kenya, simple farm ponds have helped small farmers in the drylands have helped them set up tree nurseries under a Drylands Development Programme under the World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi.

That said, the concept of integrated farming should not be limited to simply a mixture of rice and fish farming and growing vegetables, points out agricultural economist Rajeswari Raina, professor at Shiv Nadar’s University’s school of social sciences and humanities. The IFS is also evaluated solely in terms of increased production and income. “We need a different set of indicators,” says Raina. For example, productivity should be evaluated not just as yield per hectare, but also yield per hectare per cubic mm of water used, which presents the true picture of efficacy.

Traditional knowledge systems have different methods of assessment, including traditional consumption patterns and food cultures, she adds. For example, women farmers in Andhra Pradesh assess grain not just by weight, but whether the grain is bolder, more full and of quality.

The government should also divert part of funds spent on agriculture subsidies for chemical fertilisers towards IFS, Raina suggests. “We need public investment in IFS.”


Banner image: Rice-fish integrated farming system in Taiwan. Photo by Lienyuan Lee/Wikimedia Commons.

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