Towards climate-smart agriculture

S. Gopikrishna Warrier | Updated on March 09, 2018

Changing paddy-growing methods can curb methane emissions. — K.K. Mustafah

It is possible to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture and yet ensure that farmers are better off.

Farming produces food; and also greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The process of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases from farms could adversely affect food production and food security of countries.

In South Asia, the trade-off could mean reduction in the incomes of already poor farmers and food security of countries. Agriculture’s contribution in the total greenhouse gas emission basket is estimated at 12.5 per cent, but the sector supports more than half of the population in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

The number of families that derive their livelihood from agriculture is also disproportionately high when compared to the sector’s contribution to the national GDPs. In India, for instance, agriculture contributes 14 per cent to the GDP, while it supports about 55 per cent of the population.

Discussions on agriculture entered rather late into the international climate change negotiations related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). There is scope for both adaptation and mitigation in the agricultural sector.


The primary concern is on enabling farmers to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change (short-term adaptation). More than coping with the long-term (where the impacts of climate change are still uncertain) the focus is on dealing with current climate variability.

If the farmers can be helped to deal with the fallout from current climate variability — drought, floods, pests and diseases — then their ability to deal with climate change over the long term would be better.

Farmers also need to be helped to reduce greenhouse gases from their fields. For instance, growing rice in flooded paddy fields generates methane; farm animals with their multi-chambered guts also generate methane; when the soil is dry, nitrogenous fertilisers vapourise as nitrous oxide; and burning of agricultural residue produces carbon dioxide. The challenge is that mitigation has to be done without impacting farm incomes and food security.

The international research programme ‘Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)’ is an important institution linking climate change and agriculture.

Building on the collective strength of 15 international research centres in the CGIAR Consortium, CCAFS has been working in West Africa, East Africa and South Asia to help farmers cope with climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activities.


Recently, CCAFS assembled stakeholders from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to envision the pathways of impact that the programme should take. The group worked backwards from the goal of achieving climate-resilient agriculture in 2020 to the research activities that need to be undertaken to reach there.

It is not as if climate change has not been discussed at the national policy levels in these countries. Most of the South Asian countries have developed national climate change action plans and have also reported progress to the UNFCCC Secretariat. India, for instance, has the national action plan, initiated by the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change. Similarly, Sri Lanka has a national policy and a national adaptation strategy. The problem is of convergence of the national policies and actions for the farmers.

With or without climate change, there are already many uncertainties with agriculture. Added to these are the uncertainties of climate science. And all these converge with the farmer dealing with poverty and trying to raise crops over a fragmented landholding.


For the farmer, climate change is an additionality that sits on top of all the worries and risks that he has at present. He is not worried about whether the temperature will rise over the next two decades. What he is worried is whether he would get a profitable return from the resources that he has invested on the crop in the field. Since the farmer cannot visualise the long-term impacts of climate change, the onus on the experts is three fold. They have to model what direction climate change would take; assess what adverse impact that would have for the farmer; and then develop interventions to deal with them (scientific, policy-level and institutional).

Even as climate-forecasting models are getting better, converting predictions for larger areas for smaller locations is still a work in progress. Crop varieties that are more suited for the developing climate can then be tailor-made. Similarly, different crops can be farmed and even the land use systems in which the crops can be modified to meet the changing environment. These changes will help farmers deal with current climate variability as it evolves into a longer-term change.

Index-based insurance is being considered to deal with the impacts of extreme weather events due to climate change. Farming regions are benchmarked using yield and climate parameters, and when an extreme weather event happens, all farmers in the region are compensated using the index.

How can the farmers know the larger picture when an extreme weather event is happening? There are already pilot projects on reaching relevant information to farmers through the now-ubiquitous cell phone. These pilots would need scaling up to reach more areas as the impact of climate change becomes more evident.


Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is more difficult, since it has to be done without adversely affecting production. Changing practices such as reduced tilling of the soil and alternate wetting and drying of paddy fields can help reduce emissions. Research is ongoing to develop livestock breeds that produce less methane and also developing fodder additives that can reduce methane generation.

Diversifying crops including tree species not only helps in capturing more carbon but also gives a safety net to the farmer when an extreme weather event strikes. It is unlikely that all crops will fail at the same time.

Though it is certain that climate is changing and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, it is still uncertain how much and in what fashion it will change. The challenge for research, policy and implementation is to remain one step ahead of the process so that farmers’ livelihoods and national food security are not compromised.

(The author is regional environment manager with Panos South Asia. Views are personal.)

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Published on March 20, 2013
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