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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.

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'Feeding 9 billion' requires facing up to climate change

This post was co-authored by Kritee, Senior Scientist, International Climate; Richie Ahuja, Regional Director, Asia; and Tal Lee Anderman, Tom Graff Fellow – India Low-Carbon Rural Development

National Geographic's May cover story, “Feeding 9 billion,” offers valuable insights into how to feed a growing global population while reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts. But it omits some key connections with a critical issue: climate change.

Corn withered by drought in America. (Photo credit: Ben Fertig, IAN, UMCES)

Drought in the U.S. causes withering of corn. (Photo credit: Ben Fertig, IAN, UMCES)

As the Food and Agriculture Organization recently documented in great detail, climate change is likely to fundamentally alter the structure of food systems around the globe. With about 43% of the world’s population employed in agriculture, it’s vital that farmers have the knowledge and tools they need both to adapt to climate change and to help mitigate it.

Author Jonathan Foley, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, lays out several steps for “Feeding 9 billion.” Though he starts by acknowledging that agriculture emits “more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined,” he doesn’t explicitly mention how his plan relates to a changing climate.

The first of his steps – halting conversion of additional forests and grasslands to agriculture – is crucial to stopping climate change, given the vast quantities of greenhouse gases released in these conversions. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on mitigation noted, protecting forests and increasing carbon content of the soils can decrease global emissions by as much as 13 gigatons CO2eq/year by 2030 – more than a quarter of current annual global emissions.

Foley also highlights the need to reduce meat consumption, because only a very limited portion of calories consumed by animals yield edible food for humans, and to reduce food waste. According to the IPCC, these consumer-level steps have the potential to decease agricultural emissions by 60% below the current trajectory. While Foley didn’t acknowledge these mitigation potentials, we agree that these are important steps to feeding the world’s population and protecting our environment.

But it’s his steps calling for improving productivity – both by growing more food on existing farms, and by using fertilizer, water and energy more efficiently – where the interactions with climate are more complex and need special attention.

Climate adaptation and resilience in agriculture

Foley rightly points out that to feed the world’s future population, more food needs to grow on existing farms. However, he doesn’t note that some of the effects of climate change – droughts, floods and heat waves in many parts of the world – are already reducing crop yields, and these effects and their consequences are expected to worsen.

The IPCC’s recently published 5th Assessment Report on adaptation concludes that:

  • Climate change is already negatively affecting yields of crops and abundance of fish, and shifting the regions where crops grow and fish live
  • Future changes in climate will increase competitiveness of weeds, making it difficult and more expensive to control them
  • By 2050, changes in temperature and precipitation alone will raise global food prices by as much as 84% above food prices projected without these two climatic factors
  • Major grains like wheat, corn, and rice could see as much as a 40% decrease in yield from a 20C increase in local temperatures. That’s because of the changing rainfall frequency and intensity, unpredictability and irregularity of growing seasons, and higher ozone levels that often accompany high CO­2 levels

To deal with these consequences and ensure food security and livelihoods, adaptation to climate change is essential. Indeed, adopting carefully chosen adaptation and resilience measures could improve crop yields as much as 15-20%. The IPCC recommendations include:

  • Altering planting/harvesting dates to match the shifting growing seasons
  • Using seed varieties that might be more tolerant of changing climatic patterns
  • Better managing water and fertilizer use
A farmer training session, led by EDF’s partner NGO in India (Photo credit: Accion Fraterna)

A farmer training session, led by EDF’s partner NGO in India (Photo credit: Accion Fraterna)

Achieving high yields requires enabling farmers all over the world to adapt, build and restore the resilience of agricultural ecosystems in the face of continued climate change. Given that many farmers in developed countries have already reached what are currently maximum possible yields, it’s particularly urgent to work with farmers in the developing world.

A vast majority of these farmers in developing countries own small-scale farms (less than two acres in size) and have limited resources, and as a result are on the frontline of experiencing the unfolding impacts of climate change. These farmers are already growing the majority of the world’s food – more than 90% of the world’s rice, over 65% of its wheat and 55% of its corn. Notably, as opposed to our recommendations for farmers in the developed countries, some of them might need to increase their fertilizer use to achieve better yields as opposed to decreasing it. Feeding a world of 9 billion thus requires facing the disproportionate effect that climate change has on the 2 billion people who depend on small-scale farms for their livelihood.

Barriers to climate adaptation & mitigation in agriculture

The latest IPCC report also noted that the “nature” of the agriculture sector means:

“there are many barriers to implementation of available mitigation options, including accessibility to … financing, … institutional, ecological, technological development, diffusion and transfer barriers.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Many farmers, especially small scale land-owners in developing parts of the world, lack access to reliable scientific information and technology. In some cases, relevant information has not even been generated.

An Indian peanut farm where EDF is monitoring yield and greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo credit: Richie Ahuja)

An Indian peanut farm where EDF is monitoring yield and greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo credit: Richie Ahuja)

For example, small-scale rice farmers in Asia lack access to information enabling them to determine what amounts of water, organic and synthetic fertilizer will optimize yields while also minimizing release of the greenhouse gases methane (which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released), and nitrous oxide (which is nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide). EDF is working with the Fair Climate Network in India and with Can Tho University and other partners in Vietnam to help generate that information and facilitate its use by farmers.

More generally, agricultural institutions at all levels – international, regional, national and local – need to work closely with farmers to learn and promote evidence-based, locally appropriate agricultural adaptation and mitigation technologies and practices. Farmer access to finance can further help improve the adoption rate of these technologies. Larger investments in farming infrastructure and science from government and private sector also need to be channeled to promote food security through low-carbon farming.

Our food system cannot achieve high yields without building and restoring the resilience of agricultural ecosystems, and the system won’t be sustainable if agriculture doesn’t do its part to mitigate climate change.

To feed 9 billion people, we must overcome barriers to reducing climate change’s effects on agriculture, and agriculture’s effect on climate.

Also posted in Agriculture, Deforestation, Forestry| 5 Responses

Passengers on India’s largest airline can now invest in low-carbon rural development

Airline travelers in India who fly the country’s largest airline now have an opportunity to support low-carbon rural development programs across the country.


A new partnership will allow passengers on India's largest airline to invest in offsets that promote low-carbon rural development programs, including low-carbon farming. Credit: Richie Ahuja

The landmark partnership was unveiled this weekend between the Fair Climate Network (FCN), a consortium of Indian groups that is committed to improving health and livelihoods in rural communities, promoting climate resilience and reducing climate pollution, and IndiGo, the country’s largest and fastest growing airline.

The company will use the funds collected through this voluntary program to purchase some of the offsets generated by more than 300,000 Indian families from 36 climate mitigation projects. The projects, being developed and implemented by FCN, help families in rural India gain access to clean, reliable energy and improve farm income while cutting carbon emissions.

These climate adaptation and mitigation activities include innovative and sustainable low-carbon farming techniques and cooking with clean methane power instead of highly polluting traditional wood stoves. The families produce the methane fuel by using biogas digesters to process livestock manure.

Why this is a big deal for India – and Indians

It bears repeating that this is an Indian company buying carbon offsets created in India. We’ve seen other projects in India create offsets that have been purchased by, for example, European organizations. But this project is truly an effort of and for the people of the world’s largest democracy.


300,000 Indian families participate in programs under the Fair Climate Network, a consortium of Indian groups committed to improving health and livelihoods in rural communities. Credit: Tal Lee Anderman

In offering this program, Indigo is providing its customers an opportunity to support its commitment to shared prosperity and “inclusive” growth – growth that benefits not only rural families that are members of the Fair Climate Network, but also IndiGo’s passengers and all Indians, who will benefit from a healthier environment.

Ram Esteves, the Convener of FCN said addressing rural development is a "high priority," adding:

We need programs that support economic development and deliver social, health and environmental co-benefits, including climate adaptation and mitigation. IndiGo has reposed faith and trust in this understanding of inclusive development where a stable and healthy economy is good for business. This partnership is a strong step in this direction.

IndiGo’s President and Executive Director Aditya Ghosh called the move a “momentous opportunity” for the company, saying:

We strive to make a difference each day and find solutions that help manage our carbon footprint. We are delighted to partner with FCN on this initiative which not only helps us and our passengers achieve just that, but goes far beyond by creating a sustainable positive impact and improving many individuals’ livelihoods.

The company is showing leadership by making this commitment to inclusive growth and offsets, along with other green technology investments, an integral component of its future growth. This partnership can serve as a model for Indian business leaders looking to make a difference in their communities.

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EDF releases new blog for all our expert voices

EDF’s Climate Talks blog keeps you updated on major international climate issues. We provide thoughtful analysis on international climate negotiations and important climate policy developments around the world, so you can stay informed. However, we know you may have a broad interest in environmental issues.

That’s why we wanted to share with you Environmental Defense Fund’s new flagship blog, EDF Voices. EDF Voices collects stories, ideas and arguments from all of our EDF expert voices in one place. Our thought leaders use this space to weigh in on all sorts of environmental issues, from stories on how farmers in India are adapting to climate change to ideas on how to save the Amazon and its indigenous peoples.

We hope you like what you read on our new EDF Voices blog and become a subscriber.

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Fast-growing India confronts pollution, but optimism not clouded

Foul-smelling air, soot pouring out of smoke stacks, and a blinding fog of pollution.

Thick pollution clouds a street in Delhi (photo courtesy of Flickr user Daveybot)

That’s how EDF columnist Dominique Browning found Delhi when she visited and witnessed for herself the environmental challenges India, ranked the seventh most environmentally hazardous country in the world, is facing.

But with such vivid exposure to pollution in the country, she turned to EDF’s India Program Director, Richie Ahuja, for context.

Richie was born in Agra, home to the Taj Majal, whose pollution-yellowed white marble prompted the Indian Supreme Court in the late 1990s to order 200 nearby factories to stop using coal fuel.

When I told Ahuja that India's pollution was overwhelming, he surprised me by his optimism. "I'm actually feeling very heartened these days," he said. "People used to say, ‘Oh, the pollution, you get used to it.' But now, there are many rumblings in the press, and in city streets, about how serious a problem it is. Even in tiny, isolated villages, people, especially women, are beginning to understand how pollution is connected to their children's health."

Read more from Browning about her visit to India, EDF’s work to address global warming there, and how her trip made tangible the benefits of the U.S. Clean Air Act at home in her post Fast-growing India Confronts Pollution.

You can also read more about EDF's work with partners to help rural households switch from traditional, polluting wood-fired stoves, to cleaner, methane-burning cook stoves in Jennifer Haverkamp's post Picturing low-carbon development: Methane cook stoves in rural India.

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Picturing low-carbon development: Methane cook stoves in rural India

A picture is worth a thousand words – and in this case, what you don’t see is the key story: what isn’t in the picture is black soot coating every wall.

Cook stoves powered by methane generate far less soot than those fueled by wood.

That’s because this resident of rural India is cooking on a two-burner stove powered by methane rather than wood. The methane is produced by a small-scale “digester” located just outside her home. (In the digester, manure from the family’s livestock, stabled nearby, is broken down by bacteria and converted to methane.)

And because she is cooking with methane, not only are her walls cleaner – so are her lungs, and those of her children and husband.

At least as importantly, she no longer needs to spend three to four hours every day – seven days a week, 365 days a year – gathering wood.

That means that instead of her having to collect firewood, build a fire and get it hot enough to cook, she can make the family’s breakfast with the flick of a switch on the methane stove. This time savings in the morning allows her children to get to school as classes begin, rather than several hours into the school day.

Those “extra” hours in her day also allow her to earn outside income, through activities like sewing or making biofertilizers and biopesticides for sale to local farmers – or simply to rest and have a modicum of leisure time. In addition, the digester generates enough fuel that she can cook more than once daily, providing her family with a more varied and nutritious diet.

Improving Indians’ standard of living while not harming environment

The methane digester that powers the stove provides remarkable benefits compared to the traditional wood-fired stove; it:

  1. Digests manure that otherwise would have released methane directly into the atmosphere. Although burning converts methane into carbon dioxide (CO2), methane itself is 23 times more powerful at trapping heat than is CO2.
  2. Allows trees and shrubs to continue storing carbon, rather than being cut down and burned as cooking fuel. Those avoided emissions, once tallied and verified, can be sold as offset credits that pay for the digesters.
  3. Boosts families' standard of living without any increase in carbon emissions.

Villagers show Steve Cochran and me their record books verifying each stoves' methane consumption. The villagers were extraordinarily hospitable, welcoming us with garlands of fresh flowers.

These photos were taken on a recent trip to India with my colleagues Richie Ahuja, Director of EDF’s India Program, and Steve Cochran, our Vice President for Climate and Air.

Richie spends a significant portion of his time in India, working closely with the five innovative nonprofits with whom we are partnering on projects in rural communities. (See Richie’s blog post from International Women’s Day about how EDF is using film to teach rural women about climate change.)  For Steve and me, though, this was the first time we’d seen any of the projects in action.

The methane digesters initiative is a project of the Agricultural Development and Training Service (ADATS), a comprehensive nonprofit rural development organization that since 1977 has worked on sustainable agriculture as well as adult literacy, children’s education, community health and related issues in southern India. Our other partner groups are working on a variety of additional rural technologies, including solar lanterns, more-efficient wood-burning stoves, and low-carbon farming.

EDF is exploring how carbon markets can help provide funding for these locally based initiatives that help significantly improve living standards for the rural poor.

With more than half of India’s nearly 1.2 billion residents having annual incomes under $500, economic development is essential. It’s starting to occur, and with astonishing speed – indeed, India is projected to be the globe’s third-biggest economy by 2035.

For too long, it’s been assumed that development will lead inexorably to massively greater carbon emissions. Our work in India seeks to help create an alternate path – one consistent with avoiding dangerous climate change even as the world’s most populous democracy continues its vital task of lifting its poorest citizens out of poverty.

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