From bread basket to basket case

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India Climate Dialogue, Bonn, Germany

Climate-smart reforms are required to change farming practices in Punjab and Haryana, the bread basket of India, to tackle the severe air pollution that afflicts Delhi and north India every autumn

The burning of crop residue in Punjab and Haryana is creating serious air pollution hazard over northern India (Photo by Richardt Radek Larsen) 

After degrading rich farmland through reckless use of chemical fertilisers and depleting aquifers by overusing groundwater – an outcome, ironically enough, of India’s successful Green Revolution – agricultural practices in India’s bread basket are now largely responsible of foul haze hanging over Delhi and swathes of northern India and Pakistan. The widespread burning of crop residue in Punjab and Haryana has contributed significantly to the catastrophic levels of air pollution in the national capital, which has shuttered schools and led to a public health emergency.

The latest images released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) show thick haze has settled over large parts of northern India and Pakistan, which is mainly due to the burning of crop residue in Punjab and Haryana that started in mid-October. With the arrival of cooler weather in November, the smoke mixed with fog, dust and industrial pollution has formed a particularly thick haze, NASA said. A lack of wind, which usually helps disperse air pollution, worsened the problem for several days in November. It has become an annual occurrence in the country.

See: India’s farm fires poison air over South Asia

An image of northern India captured on November 8 by the Terra satellite, which circles the earth in a sun-synchronous polar orbit (Photo by NASA)

The development has refocused the importance of charting out ways to implement sustainable agricultural practices to combat global warming, a prime concern at the UN climate summit being held in Bonn. Scientists and grassroots experts have started deliberating on how to realign farming that adapts to a changing climate without compromising on food security.

India produces some 550 million tonnes of crop residue every year, with Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana being the highest producers, according to a report. A 2012 study estimated that Punjab and Haryana burnt about 80% of its rice residue, while Uttar Pradesh burnt 25%.

“We can no longer ignore how climate change is affecting agriculture,” Kirit N. Shelat, Executive Chairman of National Council for Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Public Leadership (NCCSD), said at a panel discussion on building capacity of tackling regional climate and sustainable challenges at the Bonn summit. “We need to adopt and adapt farming practices accordingly.” Shelat is an advocate of climate-smart agriculture.

As climate change pushes heat and humidity to new extremes, agriculture in India, which is the single largest occupation of the people in the country, has to adapt to the changing reality. The practices adopted during the Green Revolution in India, which was first implemented in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh and ensured food security for the entire nation, are no longer sustainable. Agriculture in Punjab, in particular, is facing a crisis.

Evergreen Revolution

Farm scientist M.S. Swaminathan, recognised as the father of Green Revolution, has been advocating what he terms Evergreen Revolution, “which implies productivity improvement in perpetuity without ecological and social harm. The evergreen revolution involves the integration of ecological principles in technology development and dissemination,” he said. “The major problems associated with the Green Revolution are related to environmental factors like depletion and pollution of groundwater, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. It is these deficiencies that can be remedied through the evergreen revolution pathway.”

Agriculture contributes 18% of the gross domestic product in India but provides employment to more than 50% of the workforce, according to World Bank data. The sector contributed to 60% of female and 43% of male employment in India in 2014.

Even before the effects of climate change made deep inroads, India’s farm sector is battling with a severe crisis. Growth in the sector has stagnated in the past 10 years, and falling incomes have plunged farmers into deep distress. Over 12,000 farmer suicides were reported every year since 2013, the federal government informed the Supreme Court in May 2017. Official surveys reveal that 42% of farmers are ready to quit agriculture. Around 700 million Indians depend on farming to make a living.

See: Climate change imperils India’s food security

It is therefore clear that agriculture practices in India need to change and adapt urgently. Both part of the cause of climate change, but also part of the solution, agriculture is central to any debate on global warming and extreme weather events, according to Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), a research programme of CGIAR, which was earlier known as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research.

“While there are many innovations for climate actions in agriculture, change has to come from within,” CCAFS said. “Farmers have to be willing to change their farming practices for transforming agriculture under climate change.”

“The agricultural community is mobilising like never before and solutions to speed up and scale up already exist,” Martin Frick, chief of Policy and Programme Coordination at United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said in a statement. “These solutions offer government, business and farmers immediate opportunities to grow agriculture without mortgaging its future. Action now sows the seeds for the sustainable harvests of the future.”