Being bold to seize a breakthrough opportunity

Global warming, already a harsh reality, is now accelerating. As the fascinating documentary Our Planet Earth on Netflix, warns us, the Earth may well be facing an existential crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) report of October 2018 (https://youtu.be/rVjp3TO_jul) contains a dire warning that our window to reverse the environmental damage could well close in less than the next two decades. The increase in the greenhouse gases (GHGs) and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are much beyond the threshold level of 350 parts per million (ppm). They are currently at 410 ppm. In recent months, scientists have warned us that we are in a grave danger of missing the Paris targets of keeping global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees centigrade. The on-going protests across Europe, unprecedented in their scale and duration, reflect rising public concern at this impending disaster. It is time that we, in India, make the fight for ecological protection into a Jan Aandolan.

Agriculture is one of the major contributors of GHGs as well as a victim of the global warming. It is also by far the largest user of water and is suffering from severe soil degradation. This poses a grave threat to our food security on account of extreme weather events —  prolonged dry spells, frequent cyclones, untimely rainfall, pest attacks, etc. We also see that the food we are eating is neither as nutritious as in the past, and nor is it any longer safe on account of heavy unregulated dosage of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It is not a problem of the Indian farmers alone, even though they have been bearing the brunt of it. It is a not just a problem in India. It is a civilisational crisis. And it is getting worse by the day.

Climate change will have maximum deleterious impact on our 130 million farmer households (nearly 650 million people), who have very limited capacity to take adaptive and mitigating measures to cope with the emerging catastrophe.  Farmers live­lihoods were already adversely affected on account of ever-increasing costs of chemical inputs, seeds, irrigation, higher production and marketing risks, etc.  Looking into the future, the situation is very grim on account of the climate change. It is therefore incumbent upon us to actively support the government’s initiative for making our agriculture both more productive, thereby doubling farmers’ incomes, and ecologically friendly at the same time. The costs of delayed cognisance and inaction could well be overwhelming. 

Most fortunately, a practical and proven method is now available for us to address this serious twin problem of ecological and farmer distress. Please believe me when I tell you that there is a solution, a unique solution, made in India, by Indians. A very low-cost solution. A solution which shows results very quickly. It is a solution which has caught global attention as a potential solution for addressing the global ecological crisis. It is not a technology solution which is still at a lab scale. It has been under implementation within the country for the last 25 years, but at a relatively small-scale. Nonetheless, nearly 5 million farmers have been exposed to it and nearly 1 million farmers have successfully adopted the method. Half these number, viz 523,000 farmers are in Andhra Pradesh. Therefore, it is a proven method, though not so far mainstreamed by our agro-scientific community. This mainstreaming is urgently needed.

However, the almost unsurmountable problem in our context is that this agricultural practice, though being practiced successfully by nearly a million farmers, does not so far have the seal of approval from the ‘agro-scientific establishment’ of Western countries or their followers in India. It is therefore, ridiculed and dismissed as mumbo jumbo, just as our own traditional schools of medicine and preventive health care are derisively dismissed. It is time to shed our lack of confidence in our own solutions.  

To reverse the climate change impact, we need to put 20 billion million tonnes of CO2, each year, into the soil in the form of stable soil carbon.  There are some measures by which the CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere. The IPCC has analysed all the available solutions. Of all these, “soil carbon sequestration” and “afforestation & reforestation” are seen to be the most impactful and cost-effective.

The solution is farming in harmony with nature. The technology has been given by an amazing individual, Padma Shri Subhash Palekar. He has called it the zero budget natural farming (ZBNF). It is a miraculous solution to increase organic carbon (OC) in soil by practising farming without using chemical fertilisers and pesticides and yet ensuring that productivity levels remain at the same level while total costs decline substantially. This ensures rising farmers’ incomes, thereby overcoming the financial distress in rural sector.

Illustration: Binay Sinha
ZBNF practices can broadly be classified as Regenerative Agriculture. The practices are also called agroecological practices. This is at present being demonstrated across many states, from where farmers’ representatives have presented their case studies in a conference convened by NITI Aayog in February 2019. Most notably, the success has been achieved in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bundelkhand and parts of Haryana. These champion farmers have demonstrated that they can improve their income and welfare levels while at the same time making a paradigm shift that provides real solution to the climate change problem.

ZBNF practices are built on four core principles, which are called its four wheels. These are: Beejamrutham or microbial seed coating through cow urine and dung-based formulation; Jeevamrutham, or enhancing soil microbiome through ‘inoculum of fermented cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, pulses flour and uncontaminated soil; Achchadana, mulching with crops, living roots or crop residue; and Waaphasa, which is fast build up of soil humus through stable carbon that promotes soil aeration, soil structures and water-vapour harnessing.  It is perhaps not well known that our atmospheric moisture contains ten times (!) the amount of water underground reservoirs. As recently reported, Israel, quite expectedly, is on the verge of commercialising technology to harness this atmospheric moisture. ZBNF achieves this by using traditional methods that have for long allowed a humus rich soil to absorb moisture atmospheric moisture, thereby becoming more resilient to droughts. />
The writer is an Indian economist and is currently the vice-chairman of the NITI Aayog. Views are personal.

The concluding part will appear tomorrow


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