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How to climate-proof Indian agriculture through innovation – from fertiliser to farmer networks

Small-scale farmers have been spending about 35% of their overheads on synthetic fertilisers, which can place them at greater financial risk from climatic shocks.

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Climate change is placing a growing strain on the land and natural resources that India’s farmers rely on, not just to provide food for the country, but to also sustain livelihoods.

At present, some 30 percent of land is experiencing degradation, and rising temperatures means agriculture needs 30 per cent more water.

Innovative methods are emerging across India to help farmers adapt to the pressures stemming from climate change and to mitigate the impacts of their farming methods.

These innovations will help threefold—sustainably intensify agricultural production and feed the growing population, enhance farmers’ individual resilience to changes in the climate, and minimise the environmental footprint of food systems.

Many of these developments are already beginning to make an impact, helping farmers intensify production in a sustainable manner. But more funding and support is needed to fully unlock their benefits at scale across the country.

As things stand, less than five per cent of overall agricultural funding – or $3 billion a year – is directed at the innovation farmers need to meet demand while also coping with climate change. Increasing this funding and channelling it towards expanding the most promising innovations will be key to meeting India’s climate and food security goals.

Also read: Hunger deaths to ‘rice bowl’: How Odisha’s Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput corridor turned a corner

Some success stories

One such innovative model is the Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) project that helps farmers enhance soil fertility without relying on fertilisers. It helps protect the soil health that farmers rely on for good harvests.

Small-scale farmers have been spending as much as 35 per cent of their overheads on synthetic fertilisers, which can place them at greater financial risk from climatic shocks due to their high costs, forcing them to operate on increasingly small margins.

Yet, by 2027, the APCNF project aims to help six million farmers manage eight million acres of farmland and adopt agroecological practices that maximise the use of natural and nature-based solutions, working with the natural environment, rather than against it. This will help reduce agriculture’s environmental impact, ensure better care of the land’s natural resources, and result in long-term productivity for farmers across the country.

Likewise, other moves to reduce misuse of fertilisers and pesticides has led to the development of innovative certification and labelling schemes. For example, Safe Harvest Private Limited (SHPL) has led the way in developing the new “pesticide-free” food product category.

The new category was developed in response to rising awareness of food and health safety in India, as well as the growing recognition that unnecessary chemicals can pollute the environment, which can, in turn, harm the productivity and financial wellbeing of farmers.

SHPL now works to produce and certify “pesticide-free” food through a network of more than 100,000 farmers registered with Farm Producer Organisations (FPOs) spread across 12 states. Most of these are either small or marginal farmers, including close to 2,500 tribal farmers.

Alongside these practices, new programmes have also been developed to provide sustainability training for farmers most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

Tea, one of the most water intensive crops, is under threat due to variable rainfall and rising temperatures – both of which make it difficult for farmers to continue producing the crop in sufficient quantities to meet demand.

Launched in 2013, Trustea is a private sector initiative providing the training needed to keep small tea growers throughout the county productive and resilient to the impact of climate change. To date, the project has provided valuable guidance on water management and other sustainability issues to more than 640,000 tea workers across India. More than 50 per cent of small tea growers connected with the programme have adopted new mechanisms to prevent chemical runoffs and sewage, and more than 80 per cent have adopted new facilities for the safe storage of environmentally harmful fertilisers.

Also read: Liberate Indian soil from chemical fertilisers, PM Modi says at natural farming conclave

Need more such stories

Facing the challenges posed by climate change, not just in terms of rising temperatures but also the growing need to better manage natural resources, promote resilient farming methods, and provide safe and nutritious food, many of India’s farmers are already making progress.

With a population soon expected to become the world’s largest, agricultural innovations in India will help to not only ensure that more people can be fed, but also that the impact of farming upon the environment is minimised, and its resilience to climate change bolstered.

More such initiatives, and more support for them are needed if we truly want to climate-proof Indian agriculture.

Dr. Rasheed Sulaiman V and Dr P.V. Vara Prasad, Commissioners for the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI). Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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