With a clear “Code Red” for countries including India, the recently released Climate Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts frequent dry spells, heat waves, and irregular monsoonal rains over the next 30-40 years.
What does that really mean? Effectively, climate change puts at risk India's food security while also compounding the issues related to import substitution, agricultural production as well as farmers’ livelihoods and incomes.
The IPCC also posits that mean precipitation and monsoon extremes are projected to intensify by 20 percent in summer over India and South Asia, which would result in erratic water supply to largely rainfed agricultural areas.
On the other hand, given the global population surge, developing countries are now looking to double food production by 2050. India itself is expected to increase its agricultural production by 70 percent by the year 2050 to cater to the demands of its population.
Hence, the need for science-based policymaking is perhaps stronger at this stage of human development than ever before. In this, countries are constantly being confronted with a delicate balance in policy priorities – the task of fulfilling rising food demand while also reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Climate change affects agriculture both as a sufferer and as a contributor. Agricultural operations account for around 10-12 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the 2019 data, owing to the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and animal manure. As a result of rising food demand from a growing global population, this pace is only expected to increase. These greenhouse gases include nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4), all of which contribute to climate change and global warming and hence have a significant influence on the agricultural production systems’ sustainability.
Why India is Key to Discussions on Climate Change
India remains central to these discussions on climate change, given its role as both a key importer and a key producer. According to the Global Footprint Network data, India has a biocapacity of 1.19 gha per person as of 2017. The Climate Watch notes that the agriculture sector in India produced 718.70 MtCO2e of GHG in 2018. Agriculture and livestock account for 18 percent of gross national emissions, the third biggest sector after energy and industry. India is also the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. An increase in carbon emissions is primarily due to a rise in the usage of inputs, particularly chemical nitrogen fertiliser, as well as a move away from traditional animal and human energy sources and toward carbon-intensive diesel and electricity-dependent machinery. It is also attributable to a 16 percent reduction in the area planted with less carbon-intensive coarse cereals and a 22 percent rise in rice production, with the latter being the top exported agricultural product by India.
Being one of the top 10 leading agricultural exporters has a big impact on the environment and has prompted questions about sustainability. The production – especially that of rice – uses a lot of resources and is regionally focused. Water supplies are constantly strained as over 89 percent of extracted groundwater is used for agriculture. Output-centric farming practices, like the development of high yield varieties of crops and other agriculture-related technologies, post the Green Revolution, have increased farm yield but has also resulted in increased emissions. Cereal crops have recorded the highest emissions because of their massive land coverage and higher carbon intensity. The largest proportion of emissions is found from inorganic nitrogen fertiliser, which is among the many inputs utilised in the cropping process.
Imperative Agriculturalists Create Sustainable Supply Chains
India's strategy to lower the emissions intensity of its GDP by up to 35 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, has emphasised the creation of sustainable and climate-resilient agricultural systems. However, incorporation of sustainable practices in production, distribution, and consumption, as well as management of food supply chains, becomes difficult for both fresh and perishable products due to the products’ properties of perishability, strict regulations regarding safety, consumers' high variation of tastes and processes, and operational restrictions in storage, processing, and distribution. But in the wake of the global climate crisis, it becomes imperative for agriculturalists to create stable and sustainable supply chains.
As policy measures, the Government of India is now looking to reduce its import dependency (especially on edible oils) and also building out measures like the Farmer (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020. Both these, in various ways, remain responses to the long-standing demand for market reforms in the agriculture sector – focusing primarily on market linkage, risk reduction for farmers, and price assurance.
However, there is also a critical need, oft-articulated by CSO actors and the media, to better integrate stronger environmental safeguards into policymaking.
Contract farming and agricultural area expansion can lead to problems like degradation of forest cover, traditional knowledge, soil quality and an evident bias towards big farmers. Excess fertiliser and pesticide usage, shifts toward livestock and cash crops, and land-use change are some of the most visible consequences of intensive farming, all of which can accelerate GHG emissions.
A case in point, the recent regulation, aims to add 0.65 million hectares under oil palm by 2025-26 to reach a targeted one million hectares, up from 0.3 million hectares at present. This would result in crude palm oil output rising to 1.1 million tonnes by 2025-26 and up to 2.8 million tonnes by 2029-30. While this might reduce offshore deforestation risk and import dependence, it will and must also answer the question of matching India’s demand (>10 million metric tonnes) for palm oil and mapping India’s domestic deforestation risk.
(Neha Simlai is a sustainable value chains specialist. She currently leads market engagement in India for deforestation commodities at IDH — The Sustainable Trade Initiative. Neha is also the Founding Director at Social and Political Research Foundation. Soumya Singhal is a Research Assistant at Social and Political Research Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)