The agriculture sector of India is the lifeline of the country, and its importance to the economy cannot be overemphasised as it contributes 17 per cent to the national GDP. It has not only proved to be one of the most resilient sectors during the pandemic, registering a growth of 3.6 per cent in 2020-21 and 3.9 per cent in 2021-2022, but also played a significant role in the revival of the economy.

However, one of the biggest challenges faced by the agriculture sector in India and across the globe is climate change. There is a common consensus that the world is getting warmer, and the increasing weather vagaries adversely impact the agriculture sector. This growing strain is not only reducing the food produce but also impacting the sustainability of the livelihood dependent on it. 

Land sowing pattern

Unseasonal rains, rising heat waves, and changing climate patterns are forcing the government to take preventive steps to ban the exports of crops in high demand globally.

According to a paper released on the perspective of least developed countries, released earlier this year, reveals that the goals kept at COP26 cannot succeed without delivering on the most vulnerable sectors. Agriculture is considered one of the most vulnerable sectors due to its high dependence on monsoons and weather conditions.

India has almost 68 per cent of its population, directly and indirectly, depending on the agriculture sector. Though the share of agriculture in India’s GDP has decreased from 51 per cent to around 16 per cent, the number of households dependent on it has increased. The share has gone up from 70 million households in 1951 to about 120 million in 2020. The loss due to extreme conditions to the agriculture sector was pegged at $9-10 billion annually according to the Economic Survey of 2017.   

Other challenges

The Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas 2021 points out that almost 30 per cent of India’s geographical land comes under the category of degraded land. Negligent soil management and the division of cultivable land into small plots have increased the degradation of land in India. Desertification annually depletes about 12 million hectares of cultivable land, enough to grow 20 million tonnes of grain.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2019 reported that land division is one of the important drivers of climate change due to reduced carbon uptake rates and emission of greenhouse gases. 

This has also led to unprecedented weather and natural crises like drought, heavy rains, floods, and cyclones. The increased use of water has also resulted in a decrease in the per capita water availability by around 60 per cent in the last 50 years. 

Climate change has also been impacting agriculture production by around 4-9 per cent annually, resulting in a loss of 1.5 per cent to the GDP. This has also led to India trailing most countries in terms of productivity. 

Drivers for growth

To achieve the targets set last year at COP, India needs to rejuvenate around 30 million hectares of land by 2030. To do this, the agriculture sector needs to adopt technology-led solutions coupled with government policy support for land-management alternatives, such as:

An improved rectangular ‘zaï’ (small linear holes dug in the field, about 80 cm apart, with compost added with soil);

Half-moons (a form of bocage, an integrated agrosilvopastoral system combining several technologies of rainwater and fertility management and crop rotation);

Vegetative contour bunds combined with micro-dosing of fertiliser;

Sahelian bocage (focusing on control of water to achieve zero runoff);

Tree-plantation techniques (specific ways of planting fruit trees in dry areas);  

Improved germplasm of fruit trees; and 

Modern climate resilient technologies that improve water use efficiency, such as water absorbent that conserve surplus water in the root zone of plants and release for plant use when required

Technology intervention can not only remedy dryland desertification but even reverse it, if the provided information is available on what areas are most at risk. Satellite images can highlight relevant land use changes along with increased surface reflectivity, temperature, dryness and dustiness. Infrared sensors can detect vegetation stress due to environmental shifts.

This satellite data is being combined with in-situ information, processing tools, models and geo-information systems (GIS) to create standardised and comparable geo-information products that can also be used to satisfy the objectives of COP8 of UNCCD and its reporting requirements. This will help in mitigating the impact of climate change and boost agriculture productivity. 

There is also a need to adopt sustainable traditional practices like crop rotation, using biofertilisers, and integrating pest management through the judicious use of pesticides. Natural resources like water can be conserved using drip irrigation and solar power for agriculture. Thus, there is an urgent need to invest in enhancing the supply chain to distribute climate-resilient crops that can handle temperature fluctuations. 

The government should also promote resource conservation and incentivise farmers for outcomes like total farm productivity rather than just their agriculture yields. There is a need to focus on knowledge exchange and capacity building among farmers on sustainable agricultural practices. 

It is strongly believed that technology will drive the next wave of the green revolution in the agriculture sector to enhance food production and reduce the impact of climate change. 

Energy transition is much talked about in the sustainability space, as it is backed by large corporations and often at the core of government plans worldwide. However, we must recognise that while agriculture is often classified with the social sector, its sustainability transition helps with the country’s climate goals and drives socio-economic growth as well. With governments largely driving the reform of the agricultural sector across countries, we look forward to more action in making this segment climate-proof.

The writer is Secretary-General of ASSOCHAM