It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land” mentioned the recent IPCC report. It also interprets that the heat waves across India will increase thereby putting our agriculture and lives under considerable stress.

The report further infers that pluvial floods (caused by extreme monsoonal rains) will go up. With such an ‘expected uncertainty’ can it be business be as usual? India became food secure after considerable planning and efforts. Maintaining and improving it further by adding nutrition security is sine qua non .

India is a subtropical country with 15 agro-climatic zones and primarily dependent on the south-west monsoon. Of India’s 329 million hectares of geographical area, nearly 140 million hectares are net sown area and out of it 70 million hectares is rain-fed. The average size of Indian farm holding is about one hectare. Rain-fed areas produce nearly 90 per cent of millets, 80 per cent of oilseeds and pulses, 60 per cent of cotton and support nearly 40 per cent of our population and 60 per cent of our livestock. These facts present our existing vulnerability to ensuing climate change. The only option we have is being prepared, adapt, and mitigate climate change.

It is here, agro-ecology comes in and more specifically for the rain-fed regions to begin with through policy and implementation. The United Nations Environment Program defines agro-ecology as “an ecological approach to agriculture, often described as low-external-input farming. Other terms such as regenerative agriculture or eco-agriculture are also used.

“Agro-ecology is not just a set of agricultural practices, it focuses on changing social relations, empowering farmers, adding value locally and privileging short value chains. It allows farmers to adapt to climate change, sustainably use and conserve natural resources and biodiversity”.

In simple words, agro-ecology celebrates crop diversity but main food staples of the world are: rice, wheat, maize, cassava, potato etc., when there are nearly 30,000 edible plants! It seeks low energy external inputs, agro-ecological services as enterprises, soil covered for a large period of time through multiple cropping, niche crops and regional markets.

The Prime Minister’s call for using less fertilisers and pesticides “as a great step for saving mother earth” on August 15, 2019 and reiteration of his “Vocal for Local” idea, aptly captures the essence of agro-ecology and it also meets 12 out of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Rain-fed areas are ecologically fragile and hence vulnerable to climate change and they are also largely inhabited by poorer farmers. But at the same time, rain-fed areas provide nutrition security through millets, pulses and oilseeds. Most of the endemic and cultivable land races of these regions are ephemerals. The word ‘ephemeral’ denotes all plants lasting a very short period of time and they inhabit rain-fed areas.

Whenever rains come, dormant seeds sprout, flower, seed and disperse their seeds in a short time. Productivity of most of the rain-fed crops is meagre as compared to their irrigated cousins and hence traits of resilience and improved productivity are screened for under rain-fed crop improvement programs.

Govt support needed

Further, if one calculates government support, rain-fed areas and their farmers are hardly benefited as they use lesser fertilisers and irrigation thereby receiving lesser fertiliser and power subsidies. These areas deserve renewed attention especially when the climate predictions are not conducive.

Further, in a post-Covid world, there is need for immunity boosting and nutritious foods with little or no chemical residues. Rain-fed areas are the obvious choice and making markets work for agro-ecology could be a good strategy. Consumer education on how to effectively cook these nutritious crops can create a demand pull. The Karnataka government has prepared a descriptive and colourful cookbook for millets. NECC campaign is another example how the markets can create a sustainable demand.

Introducing agro-ecology in rain-fed areas could thus be a good policy option. The design elements of such interventions must start from seeds and end with markets. Codifying endemic land races, collecting their seeds, creating a repository of indigenous knowledge curated from formal and civil society, improving land races through plant-selection or plant-breeding, developing agronomic practices, region specific orientation, institutions, gender, convergence with other programs, marketing strategies, metric for measurement and technology as an enabler are some of the key design elements.

The writer is Deputy Managing Director of Nabard