The effects of the climate crisis are a study in contrast — flooded roads in IT city Bengaluru on the one hand and the parched earth of drought-affected Banka of Bihar on the other. Climate crisis threatens our food security. This year, record-breaking heat waves trimmed wheat output by 3 per cent; now, large rice-growing tracts are staring at a shortfall of crops due to insufficient rainfall.

While large parts of the country reel under floods, drought-like conditions stare at farmers in UP, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, which are among the top paddy-producing States. For farmers, hot temperatures and erratic rainfall threaten the livelihood of 45 per cent of the country’s population. It impacts their income and crop-loan cycle — to return on time to get fresh lending and to invest back into their farms as well as to fulfil their basic needs.

Policymakers, agri-scientists and farmers must come together to form a Climate Risk Management Board (CRMB) to create a sustainable solution in the form of climate-resilient farming.

A study by the Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) has found that over 75 per cent of India’s districts are vulnerable to extreme climate. Expert estimates show that climate change might reduce global agriculture productivity by 17 per cent by 2050. Could embracing sustainable agriculture improve farm incomes and nutrition security in a climate-changing world?

The challenges

Overuse of resources like water, soil, fertilisers and pesticides to boost yield resulted in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which exacerbate the climate crisis. After the implementation of the Food Security Act, the country is once again looking towards Punjab. But Punjab farmers need to conserve its soil and water along with adopting diversification in agriculture and venture into agro-processing.

The State has never been able to implement an agenda of crop diversification. Punjab takes about 5,400 litres of water to grow one kilogram of rice, five times as much as China uses, pointing to the State’s low water productivity. That’s why 131 of the 148 blocks in the State are overexploited. About 15 lakh shallow tube wells dig deeper and deeper every year. The northern and central districts are severely water-depleted, while south-western districts face waterlogging and soil salinity or alkalinity. The Central Ground Water Board put out a dire warning — ‘at the current rate of water extraction, Punjab would be a desert within the next quarter-century.’

The Green Revolution led by Punjab once helped India overcome a food crisis. In irrigated areas, a typical farmer now uses 3.5 times more fertilisers and pesticides than in 1970 to get the same output. Although Punjab has only 1.53 per cent of the land area of India, it uses about 23 per cent of the total pesticides used in the country. There are serious environmental problems and health concerns resulting from the use of pesticides.

Ironically, as much as 78 per cent of pesticides and fertilisers are lost to the environment, causing soil, air and water pollution. In addition, the soils of Punjab have become deficient in micronutrients resulting in soil fertility decline.

Farmers need a decent income to solve their multidimensional crisis. The CEEW has identified 16 sustainable agriculture practices (SAPs), such as organic farming, integrated farming systems, agro-forestry and precision farming. These could be economically remunerative, socially inclusive and environmentally benign.

Brazil set an example and became the top producer of sugarcane and soybean without using fertilisers. In India, a few States are already at the vanguard of this revolution. Sikkim is a 100 per cent organic State, and Andhra Pradesh aims at 100 per cent natural farming by 2027.

The way out

Farmers should start promoting sustainable integrated agriculture practices that could enable higher crop diversity from staples to high-value crops, fruit and vegetables. Integrated farming with the inclusion of dairy, poultry, beekeeping, fisheries and mushroom cultivation can give additional high-energy food without affecting the production of foodgrains.

There are four sustainable ways farmers can produce more food and adapt to climate change.

First, farmers need hand-holding in the early phases. Support them for knowledge exchange with skill-intensive practices.

Second, support technology innovation and adoption to mechanise labour-intensive activities associated with sustainable agriculture practices. Incentivise innovators and entrepreneurs to encourage the development of farm implements. Alongside, support local micro-businesses through State livelihood missions to produce and sell ready-made inputs such as vermicompost and organic fertilisers.

Third, instead of input-based subsidies for fertiliser and power, incentivise outcomes such as annual nutrition output per hectare and enhanced ecosystem measures such as water conserved or desertification reversed.

Fourth and most significantly, is enhanced research and development for impact studies compared with conventional farming across agro-climatic zones. Regular comparisons of outcomes amid climate change are important for safeguarding farm income, nutrition, food security and natural resources.

The writer is Vice Chairman, Punjab Economic Policy and Planning Board