Farming Ripe For Makeover

"The impact of rising temperatures, reducing rainfall and declining soil health will soon take a heavy toll on agriculture."

Illustration by Raj Verma Illustration by Raj Verma

Farming is the oldest profession in India, and it is believed that women started crop cultivation nearly 10,000 years ago while men went out to hunt. Thanks to the early women cultivators, the practice of growing rather than gathering food became common. Along with it came other significant changes, from building irrigation canals to cereal-legume crop rotation to shifting of cultivation to ensure soil health replenishment. Now that climate change and other issues are taking a toll on India's agricultural productivity, it is time for a sustainable makeover.

Promoting super nutrients

India is rich in food crops, including several types of millet. Unfortunately, all of them were classified as coarse grains during the Colonial period. In 1970, I pleaded at an FAO meeting that all varieties should be referred to as nutri-cereals as they are rich in nutrition. Later, I referred to them as climate-smart nutri-cereals as these are resistant to drought and high temperature. While Karnataka declared itself as the Organics and Millets Capital of India, the central government announced the year 2018 as the National Millets Year. Likewise, all other Indian states should promote diverse food habits and widen the food basket under the National Food Security Act. There is a provision in the Act for adding other crops to the public distribution system besides the traditional wheat and rice. By adding climate-smart nutri-millets in the farming system, we will be able to meet the goals of the Farming System for Nutrition (FSN) model.

Fighting climate change

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned about the consequences of allowing the mean temperature to rise above 1.5 degree Celsius. In 1990, I had pointed out that even a 1 degree Celsius rise in mean temperature could reduce the wheat production by 400 kg or so per hectare in North India. The reason is the reduction in crop duration, caused by a higher mean temperature. In contrast, an increase in mean temperature will benefit farmers of northern latitudes as it will lead to a rise in crop duration. Under the circumstances, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be most adversely affected. So, we have to take proactive steps and manage the temperature rise.

As climate management is both a science and an art, we will have to marry traditional wisdom with modern science to insulate our crops from the adverse impact of higher mean temperature. An immediate step could be breeding the crop varieties characterised by higher per-day productivity rather than per-crop productivity, which means climate-smart nutri-cereals (millet) and other such crops should be promoted. Additionally, climate risk management centres must be set up in every panchayat. We should also redouble our efforts in mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

In agriculture, adaptation will involve shifting our focus to per-day productivity of crops. Greater attention should be paid to reducing ammonia volatilisation by replacing normal urea with neem-coated urea. Our food security can be safeguarded by setting up biogas plants and water-harvesting ponds, and by planting of nitrogen-fixing trees at every farm. Then again, the R&D aspects of solar, nuclear, wind, biogas and biomass energy must be explored further as they are the pathway to sustainable agriculture, the second among Sustainable Development Goals, which will replace the Millennium Development Goals from 2019.

Ensuring water security

The devastating floods in Kerala and other parts of the country often make us forget that soon we will be confronted with widespread drought. We have already experienced it and, therefore, must ensure water security for farmers. For instance, we should make rainwater harvesting mandatory in rural and urban areas, thus helping dry and arid farmlands with crop-saving irrigation. Plus, it will lead to groundwater recharge and limit our heavy dependence on surface water resources.

Interbasin water transfers through river linking should be encouraged and made possible. Linking the rivers of peninsular India, which are under our political control, would help create the Indian Rhine in South India. But all these will require a perfect fusion of technical skills, political will and people's co-operation.

Five ways to safeguard soil health

  • Areas with fertile soil, capable of sustaining two to three good crops a year, should be identified and declared as Special Agricultural Zones (SAZ). A few examples are Kuttanad in Kerala and Indira Gandhi Canal in Rajasthan. State governments may make SAZ identification and declaration in consultation with the farmers concerned. Special facilities may be provided to them to maintain these zones as custodians of national food security. As Aristotle said, soil is the stomach of the plant. If we do not attend to soil health and improvement, we will not be able to achieve the goal of ending hunger. No further time should be lost in establishing SAZ to save good agricultural soils.
  • Set up a soil health monitoring and amelioration centre in all 130 agroecological zones. These will not only help farmers with soil health cards but also extend assistance to rectify soil defects like salinity, alkalinity and waterlogging.
  • Pay particular attention to soil organic matter as this is essential for improving the hydraulic conductivity, chemistry and microbiology of the soil.
  • Popularise the use of natural soil engineers such as earthworms and nitrogen-fixing and phosphorus-solubilising microorganisms.
  • Train a cadre of local soil health managers for monitoring and amelioration.
From GM crops to gene editing

It has been 150 years since Gregor Johann Mendel first discovered the laws of genetics. The discipline has evolved rapidly and new discoveries, based on molecular breeding and genome analysis, have come forth. Latest technologies like CRISPR/CAS 9 are now available for bringing about the right gene combinations and mutations. Understandably, the new generation of geneticists will have a bigger opportunity to insulate our food and nutrition security from the vagaries of climate change and other issues. They should try and achieve a blend of Mendelian and molecular genetics so that India can move away from genetic modification to responsible gene editing, which can further revolutionise the country's agriculture.

The writer is Founder, Emeritus Chairman and Chief Mentor of MS Swaminathan Research Foundation