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Climate-proofing agriculture: The vital role of smallholder farmers in India

  • Published
    3rd Nov, 2023

Smallholder farmers are indispensable to the global agricultural ecosystem, yet their challenges and contributions are often overlooked.

Climate change vulnerabilities:

  • Despite efforts to mitigate its impact, human-induced climate change is yielding perilous and extensive disruptions in natural systems and affecting billions of lives globally.
  • Particularly vulnerable are those communities and ecosystems least equipped to withstand these challenges.
  • This crisis is intricately interwoven with agriculture. Droughts, storms and soaring temperatures ravage farming fields, food stocks and biodiversity affecting health as well as livelihoods imminently threatening sustenance and rendering many more people food insecure.

Agriculture contribution to climate change:

  • Paradoxically, agriculture is also among the sectors which are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Agriculture currently accounts for 19 per cent-29 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and that is projected to rise with population growth and increasing food demand.
  • Efforts such as natural farming, climate-smart agriculture and regenerative agriculture along with subsidies to encourage sustainable practices are being explored by stakeholders from academia, government, civil society and more to mitigate agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Small holders Farmers in India:

  • Smallholder farmers with 1-3 acres of irrigated land or 3-7 acres of rainfed land, who constitute 27 per cent of the agricultural workforce in India, are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
  • In the past three years, 76 per cent of rainfed smallholder farmers and 52 per cent of irrigated smallholder farmers have lost half or more of their crops due to erratic rainfall patterns.

Increased Pesticide Use in India:

  • Pests, diseases and weeds: It have become more rampant, leading 76 per cent of farmers to increase their use of pesticides resulting in a drastic doubling of their chemical usage over the past five years.
    • The widespread application of chemicals harms the environment, damages soil fertility and compromises human health.
    • However, transitioning from conventional arming to alternative practices is not always straightforward for smallholder farmers due to their limited land and resources.
  • Green Solutions: Recognising these challenges, scientific research is actively being carried out in exploring alternatives to conventional pesticides, such as organic and biological solutions, which are both effective and eco-friendly.
  • Soil Fertility: Many farmers are aware of the need to improve soil fertility and are working towards achieving it.
    • More than three-quarters of smallholder farmers are using cow dung as manure to improve soil fertility.
    • Significant use of crop rotation further demonstrates their awareness about maintaining soil health and enhancing yields.
  • Smart Agriculture: The proliferation of smartphones and digital resources has enabled farmers to become more knowledgeable about climate change and enhance their agricultural practices.
    • Emerging agri-tech enterprises are making strides in offering services such as real time local climate insights, remote sensing technologies and guidance on planting and irrigation strategies.
    • However, the consistency of these services varies and they have yet to effectively penetrate the realm of smallholder farmers.
  • Integration of technology and agriculture: The integration of technology is promising, it is crucial to ensure that the solutions and opportunities are universally accessible, sustainable and beneficial to all farmers regardless of their land size.
    • Recommendations of shifting towards indoor farming or cultivating diverse crops may be challenging for smallholder farmers due to their limited arable land.
    • To address this, agri-tech companies and climate organisations must focus on scalable and affordable solutions that also cater to the needs of small-scale farmers.

Small holder farmers Centric Farming:

  • Owing to their noticeable contribution to agricultural produce and the proportion of rural India that it constitutes, it is time that the smallholder farmers’ perspectives are placed at the centre of our efforts to combat climate change.
  • It is necessary to acknowledge the importance of supporting them in our collective pursuit of building resilient and sustainable food systems.
  • Adequate financial support, innovative technological solutions and philanthropic efforts are essential to empower smallholder farmers and facilitate their transition to climate-resilient practices.

Way Forward:

  • The path ahead should involve collaboration among various stakeholders including governments, NGOs, philanthropies, academia and the private sector.
  • Smallholder farmers are indispensable to the global agricultural ecosystem, yet their challenges and contributions are often overlooked.
  • Embracing sustainable alternatives, leveraging technological advancements and amplifying their voices are key steps towards climate-resilient agriculture.
  • By creating an enabling environment for their needs, a brighter and more equitable future for smallholder farmers and a more sustainable planet awaits the next generation.
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