Addressing challenges in food systems with climate-smart agriculture

Solar energy-powered water pump in a field. Photo by Prashanth Vishwanathan for IWMI/ Flickr.

Solar energy-powered water pump in a field. Photo by Prashanth Vishwanathan for IWMI/ Flickr.

  • As technologies and practices for better water management and climate-smart agriculture (CSA) improve in India, solar-based irrigation systems and direct-seeded rice are gaining momentum.
  • In harnessing solar energy on farms, farmers transfer the electricity to the local grid, and they are provided an income for the same. Second, it also helps them grow different crops as there is a guarantee of water and they don’t have to depend entirely on monsoons.
  • Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are breeding new varieties of rice that can thrive without puddling and trials are underway at sites across India.

To meet the suite of climate challenges, while also producing food and energy in an environmentally and socially sustainable way, climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is becoming popular around the globe. CSA is defined by the Food and Agricultural Organisation as a strategy for transforming agri-food systems to be more environmentally friendly and climate-resilient.

Food systems are responsible for a third of our global emissions. At the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland (COP26), the negotiations featured plans lowering the sector’s contribution to global warming. Scientists and farmers criticised the dichotomy narrative in the ‘food versus fuel’ conversation and called for more climate-resilient food and energy systems while highlighting the existing technology. They pressed on the fact that transformative agricultural systems exist and agriculture can be climate-friendly.

Technologies and practices for better water management and climate-smart agriculture (CSA) are improving in India. Farmers face different climate vulnerabilities based on their landholding sizes, crops grown and their geographic location. However, solar-based irrigation systems and Direct Seeded Rice (DSR), as CSA methods, are emerging as popular examples among many Indian farmers.

“CSA can include innovations such as agro-advisory services and weather insurance; solar water pumps, community-based and on-farm water management; adaptive varieties of crops, breeds and seedbanks; sustainable livestock management, integrated nutrient management, using biogas and minimum tillage,” Kundhavi Kadiresan, Managing Director, Global Engagement and Innovation of the CGIAR, told Mongabay-India. The CGIAR is a network of 15 international agricultural research centres focusing on different food crops and geographies.

Innovations at the market level include building strong local institutions, implementing gender-inclusive strategies, making cross-sector linkages and providing access to market information, added Kadiresan. “So, some are focused on adaptation to the effects of climate change and some are focused on reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture,” Kadiresan said.

The CGIAR, shared Kadiresan, is working towards increasing the resilience of smallholders who are on the front line of climate change and there are many examples of climate-smart innovations that have already been developed and many more in the pipeline.

Climate smart farming takes wing in India

“Salt tolerant rice is one example. Rice is a staple crop in India as well as in many parts of Asia and Africa. Climatic extremes including rising sea levels – which cause inland salinization – can seriously affect rice production. The adoption of ‘climate-smart’ rice has led to significant increases in yield in climate change stress-affected areas, including those inhabited by the most impoverished farming communities. The Sahbhagi Dhan variety is specifically deployed in India,” explained Kadiresan.

One good example of CSA intervention is Dhundi village in Gujarat, where the farmers irrigate their lands with solar power, shared Giriraj Amarnath, Principal Researcher, Disaster Risk Management and Climate Resilience Research Group at International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

The solar programme provides remuneration to the farmers in two ways. First, the farmers transfer the electricity to the local grid, and they are provided an income for the same. Second, they can also diversify and grow different crops as there is a guarantee of water and they don’t have to depend entirely on monsoons.

“They are growing pomegranate, papaya, cotton and the like. You don’t need a lot of water for that. This also doubles the farmers’ income. The grids are also local. A section of farmers in India are now using solar-based energy, which means lesser emissions compared to the diesel-based pumps,” Amarnath told Mongabay-India, stressing that CSA should be looked at the broader nexus of mitigation and adaptation. “Water is a co-benefit for mitigation. Climate is basically a water crisis. You can’t separate climate and water crises. There is more awareness about this now,” Amarnath said.

Direct-seeded rice trials in India. Photo by IRRI.
Direct-seeded rice trials in the Philippines. Photo by IRRI.

Farmers are also experimenting with a switch in rice planting. Direct-seeded rice, in which rice seeds are sown and grown directly into the field instead of the need for puddling in water, is increasingly being explored as a climate mitigation strategy to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions associated with the volume of water required to grow traditional varieties in flooded fields.

Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are breeding new varieties of rice that can thrive without puddling, and the first trials are currently close to harvest at sites across India, including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha. Rice currently generates around 10% of global methane emissions – comparable to emissions associated with livestock.

IRRI’s breeding programme targets the development and testing of breeding lines specifically targeted to dry and puddled direct-seeded systems by bringing together yield potential, stability and specific traits crucial for these systems into elite breeding lines. Direct seeded crops require less labour and tend to mature faster than transplanted crops. But direct-seeded plants can have problems in lodging, weeds, and uneven growth, requiring weed management and robust tillering.

“Rice at present is not well adapted to direct-seeding. What we then need to do is to work on rice and develop varieties that can handle that kind of growing system; if we try to use the current base varieties that are being grown in the farmers’ fields and try to put them in the same situation (direct-seeding) then the yield will be zero or may be low and farmers will not want to go back to that,” said Shalabh Dixit, Senior Scientist and Plant Breeder at IRRI.

Dixit explained that the breeding lines that are being developed will factor in the following: well adapted to direct-seeding conditions, will be risk-free and offer farmers the flexibility in the way they want to grow rice without the risk of crop failures. “If they want to transplant, they can do that; if they want to opt direct seeding, they can do that; if they want to use machines or if they want to broadcast, they can do that without the risk of crop failures,” Dixit added.

One of the challenges DSR could help address, is the paddy stubble burning issue in north India. “Since DSR relatively shortens the duration of the crop growth, and say, Punjab, Haryana and UP start doing DSR, hypothetically, rice matures a little bit earlier than it does right now. It might give them the time to manage straw better rather than burning it,” he said.

Mechanisation (including how quickly or easily machinery is available in a certain area), weed management and how fast seeds move into farmers’ hands are factors that need to be considered for the successful uptake of DSR. However, there are opportunities in these challenges. “The need for mechanisation may spur the development of local enterprises to rent out such machinery, for example,” observed Dixit.

The cost-effectiveness of DSR is an added benefit. Farmer Harminder S Sidhu from Raikot, Punjab, who has adopted DSR farming as a CSA method says that he expects more farmers to adopt DSR in the coming years.

“During the lockdown period in 2020, the farmers couldn’t get many labourers to work on the farms with them. Because of its minimal input requirement, direct-seeded rice (DSR) is generating a lot of interest. Pre-germinated seeds are sowed into a puddled surface. In the DSR method, the puddling cost, sowing cost and the labour cost are reduced. There are also fewer pest attacks. In a field that has moisture, we also save water for several days.”

Sidhu manages the Gadri Baba Dulla Singh Giani Nihal Singh (GBDSGNS) foundation – an NGO that empowers Indian farmers. The foundation also helps farmers buy the machines needed for DSR farming. “We motivate the farmers to buy machines in a group so that the cost is split and the benefits are shared,” he adds.

The way ahead: Technological interventions and multistakeholder collaborations

Collaborative approaches between the government agencies and the farmers, enabling mechanised farming and opening up to new technological inventions is the way to go in CSA. Big data and digital innovations, at various levels, can empower farmers to face climate-linked challenges in agriculture.

“Farmers need to believe in technology and its role. We need to build our capabilities of sub-seasonal forecasting. Met departments function at district levels. And the districts are large with farmers growing diverse crops. We don’t have the technology to track and monitor all these crops; we need to digitise the farm fields,” explained Giriraj Amarnath.

Punjab's rice fields. Photo by Jaspinder Singh Duhewala.
Punjab’s rice fields. Photo by Jaspinder Singh Duhewala/ Wikimedia Commons.

BICSA (Bundled Solutions of Index Insurance with Climate Information and Seed Systems to manage Agricultural Risks) is one good example that combines the strength of public and private partnerships.

“We provide farmers better seed inputs, better agronomic and climate services at the local scale and a weather-index insurance. The better seeds guarantee the survival of crops even when water is stagnant for a few days on the fields. When the private and public sector including the Met Department, seed companies, and insurance companies participate in the adaptation process, climate-smart agriculture becomes possible,” Giriraj added.


Banner image: Solar energy-powered water pump in a field. Photo by Prashanth Vishwanathan for IWMI/ Flickr.

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