New studies point to a pathway to find India’s most effective climate-smart farming practices

india measurements

EDF-Fair Climate Network science team training a new village volunteer to collect air samples from a groundnut farm. EDF and FCN have collaborated with international research groups to develop new greenhouse gas emission measurement techniques and train local groups to measure emissions during crop production. Source: Environmental Defense Fund, Rakesh Tiwari

Agriculture around the world is already experiencing the effects of the changing climate, including more intense droughts, heat waves, floods, and a growing influx of pests and diseases. This contributes to unstable livelihoods for the world’s 2 billion rural poor who depend on small-scale farms and live on the margins of the poverty line.

With these challenges, the world is increasingly shifting toward climate-smart agriculture, which the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines as an umbrella of agricultural practices that lead to a “triple win” because they:

  1. sustainably increase agricultural productivity and income;
  2. adapt and build agricultural resilience to climate change; and
  3. reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions.

The FAO’s definition offers initial guidance for climate-smart agriculture. However, for the global scientific community, national policy makers, and those who care about global food security, there remains a need for more solid evidence around how the triple win can be achieved across geographies, crop types, and different farm scales, especially small-scale farms spread across much of the developing world.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has released two new peer-reviewed journal articles that contribute important evidence to support a triple-win approach to feeding the 9 billion people who will be living on this planet in 2050. In the first article, we present a rigorous pathway to measure climate impacts of farming practices, especially in the tropical and developing parts of the world. In the second article, we demonstrate that carefully chosen climate-smart farming practices can improve resource use efficiency, enhance food security, increase farmer savings, and provide better ecosystem services while decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

With our partners, we conducted the research in India, where there is a huge opportunity to implement climate-smart agriculture. India has 100 million small-scale (under 2 acres of land) farming families, which means it’s in the best interest of India and its farmers to learn to adapt in a way that maintains (and preferably improves) crop yields and secures their profitability while also reducing agricultural GHG emissions.

The challenge, and solution, to identifying baseline farm conditions in rural India

The first step to evaluating the effectiveness of new agricultural practices is to establish baseline (i.e., conventional or “business as usual”) farm conditions. However, India’s farms have challenges that are also common in most of the developing world: very small land holdings; socioeconomic constraints; and enormous diversity of terrain, soil types, rainfall regimes, and crop choices.

To address these challenges, EDF began working in 2012 with the Fair Climate Network (FCN), a coalition of 35 grassroots NGOs in India, to conduct thousands of small-scale farmer surveys to determine baseline economic, demographic and farming practices.

We believe that similar approaches to research can bridge the gap between theory, practice and policy by simultaneously achieving scientific rigor and ushering in tangible socioeconomic impact.

Simultaneously, EDF and FCN collaborated with diverse stakeholders, and domestic and international research groups, to establish five state-of-the-art GHG measurement laboratories with the support of five of our NGO partners in South India, and to train local researchers to conduct technical measurements and to develop a rigorous methodology to measure crop yield-scaled GHG emissions (i.e., GHG emissions per unit crop yield) in multiple agro-ecological zones. We detail this comprehensive methodology in "Sampling guidelines and analytical optimization for direct greenhouse gas emissions from tropical rice and upland cropping systems" in the journal Carbon Management.

In this study, we compare all leading internationally and regionally recommended approaches to monitor agricultural GHG emitted directly from soil. We also highlight issues related to air sampling, instrumental (Gas Chromatograph) analysis and calculation that, when left uncorrected, contribute to extremely high errors in cumulative GHG emission rate calculation, especially in tropical regions. Additionally, we introduce several new strategies to improve precision and accuracy of such measurements in all developing parts of the world.

Identifying effective climate-smart farming practices

Using the above methodology at five laboratories and the data from the baseline surveys, we designed many research studies on farmer fields across multiple states that have allowed us to determine changes in yield, farm-profit and methane and nitrous emissions from potential climate smart farming practices for rice and several upland crops (e.g., millets and groundnut) across six states in South India.

In a recent peer-reviewed study in Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems, “Groundnut cultivation in semi-arid peninsular India for yield scaled nitrous oxide emission reduction,” we find that carefully chosen climate-smart farming practices can:

  • enhance food security through drought resilience and higher yields;
  • increase savings through lower input costs for the farmer (and also governments that spend on fertilizer subsidies or crop insurance schemes); and
  • provide better ecosystem services including climate mitigation.

For example, high resolution field measurements done at a groundnut (also known as peanut) farm in one of the most arid regions in India show that integrated nutrient management led to a number of benefits in a drought-hit year, including a 40-60% reduction in total nitrogen fertilizer use, increased crop yield by 35-50%, and net profit by 70-120% – while decreasing GHG emission intensity (per unit yield) by 50%. In addition to the direct reduction in GHG emissions from soil (i.e., agricultural sector emissions), our estimates show a concomitant reduction in GHG emissions from the industrial sector due to decreased demand of fertilizers at the groundnut farm. Such demonstrations of “triple win” help in making a case for better agricultural policies and increased investments in this sector.

The results presented in this study (and also unpublished data from 2013-2014) also show that emission factors (i.e. percentage of added nitrogen from fertilizers emitted as nitrous oxide – which is a powerful GHG) for groundnut could be as much as ~2%. That’s significantly more than the emission factors of 1% and 0.58% for upland crops assumed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Indian national government, respectively. This implies that India might want to revisit its “business as usual” GHG emissions from soils and incorporate higher resolution data in its calculations. Our ongoing research supports the assessment that intensive measurements on multiple crops and in multiple regions are necessary to correctly determine GHG emissions from Indian soils.

Our approach to climate-smart agriculture in India incorporates farmers, researchers, the private sector, governmental organizations, and policymakers, and encourage a move towards climate-resilient and mitigation pathways by building evidence; increasing local institutional effectiveness; fostering coherence between climate and agricultural policies; and linking climate and agricultural financing. We believe that similar approaches to research can bridge the gap between theory, practice and policy by simultaneously achieving scientific rigor and ushering in tangible socioeconomic impact.

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