Building a climate-resilient agriculture structure in India

By Aanchal Saxena, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

“When we address degraded lands, we also address water scarcity. Augmenting water supply, enhancing water recharge, slowing down water run-off and retaining moisture in the soil are all parts of holistic land and water strategy.” – Shri Narendra Modi, Hon’ble Prime Minister of India at UNCCD CoP 14.

Credit: C.deBode/CGIAR

India is one of the world’s most biologically, ethnically and culturally diverse countries, blessed with large arable land and 15 agro-climatic zones. Despite GDP contribution decreasing to less than 20%, agriculture remains the primary livelihood for the majority of people. However, with a growing population, there’s a steep escalation in demand which has increased pressure on the limited resources we have.

According to FAO, agriculture is the primary source of livelihoods for rural communities, supporting at least two-thirds of rural families. Over the years, government and other stakeholders have encouraged innovations targeted at productivity, such as fertilizers and new hybrid seeds, improved irrigation management and credit coverage. This however resulted in short-term positive outcomes with some long-term implications. Furthermore, land degradation has been a challenge to ongoing governmental investments to increase agricultural productivity, maintain forest cover and improve soil and water conservation. At the same time, the benefits from these measures have not been experienced equally by the estimated 90 million Indian smallholder farmers who produce over 80 percent of India’s agricultural output (Agriculture Census 2015-16, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare).

Some of the principal causes of land degradation include the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, overgrazing, deforestation and poor irrigation practices. With all these adding layers of complexity to the problem, the biggest question that arises is that of the future of agriculture.

To confront this, a multi-fold end-to-end solution focusing on effective policy recommendation, sustainable agricultural practices, participatory landscape management, market development and blended finance is urgently needed. Success will involve focused investment in cost-effective agro-technologies as well as developing a comprehensive supply chain.

The next question arises – when? The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought a greater sense of urgency and a heightened public recognition of the need to re-build economies with strategies that respect nature and conserve ecosystems.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in India is committed to providing a holistic nature-based solution in partnership with various stakeholders. One of the many projects in this domain is ‘Sustainable Agriscapes for Future’ with support from ITC Limited. Initiated in 2016, the project targeted Indo Gangetic plains of Munger district in Bihar State.

The project worked on different pilots to strengthen priority ecosystem service flows from ecosystems surrounding these agriculture landscapes, and enable nature-based livelihoods for local farmers. A series of training sessions for ITC landscape managers and civil society organizations in that area was provided for sustainable supply chain benefits in the long run.

In another project with UNEP supported by the Global Environmental Facility fund, IUCN, in association with Rainforest Alliance and Rythu Sadikhara Samstha (RySS), conducted a baseline study and stakeholder consultation on the impacts of non-sustainable agricultural practices on biodiversity and protected areas. Through the findings from this research, a project has been designed in alignment with the relevant initiatives of central and state governments, CSOs and in some cases, the private sector to add value through complementary activities and avoid duplication.

The project will work on a large area of farmland in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh on sustainable landscape management concepts and achieving land degradation neutrality. Sensitization and adoption of critical values of sustainable agriculture for the ecosystem in which they farm: climate resilience, soil quality, water retention and the increased security of a more diversified cropping system will be a critical objective of the upcoming phase of the project.

The aim is to achieve this by incorporating two approaches:

  • Community Managed Natural Farming (CNF) – Formally known as Zero Budget Natural Farming, is a low-input, climate-resilient farming system that encourages farmers to use locally-sourced inputs, eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. This concept was developed by Rythu Sadikhara Samstha (RySS) and is currently operational in Andhra Pradesh.

  • Rainforest Alliance certification – Sustainable Agriculture Standards are the basis for a farm to be awarded Rainforest Alliance certification. This independent verification process enables farms to transact their products under favorable terms in the supply chain. The Standard has been applied in the coffee, tea, spices, herbs and fruits sectors in India since 2010.

Land restoration is the cheapest solution to climate change and biodiversity loss and makes business sense if regulations and incentives to reward investment are in place. It is therefore vital to make efforts to convert all challenges into opportunities to have a sustainable future for agriculture.

Aanchal Saxena

Aanchal Saxena was educated at Delhi University and TERI School of Advanced Studies. She is currently working with International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), India Country Office on a varied range of projects supported by international funds like Global Environment Facility as well as corporates.

This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for June is ‘Climate change’.  


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