I Went to India and Saw the Future of Climate-Smart Farming

  • 2015-12-11
  • Nautilus

Earlier this fall, I traveled to central Gujarat and northern Punjab, in India, to meet with rural farmers who were trying new techniques to combat climate change. Sitting under a mango tree, I spoke with 65-year-old Raman Bhai Parmar, who told me about his solar-powered irrigation pump that was whooshing with water, deep underground. Behind me, he said, a concrete tank was catching the water’s flow, holding it until the nearby fields of bananas and rice needed it again.

Parmar’s solar pump is one of an entire system of adaptation measures being implemented in roughly 80 test sites, called climate-smart villages, across six Indian states. Currently 1,500 of these are planned: 500 in Haryana, 500 in Punjab, and as many as 500 others throughout the country. Much is riding on their success because, in view of the consequences of climate change, India’s future looks bleak.

Farmers—both in India, where over 70 percent of the population still economically depends on agriculture, and the world over—can no longer idly depend, as they have been, on small breakthroughs: In India, neither breeding higher-yielding varieties of its dietary staples, wheat and rice, nor perfecting irrigation methods, will come close to sustaining the country’s growing population, projected to increase by another 346 million people—more than the current U.S. population—by 2050. Farmers instead must now be intimately in tune with their distinct ecosystems, to consider the local interconnectedness of weather, water, nitrogen, carbon, and energy.

The organization responsible for this emphasis in general, and the solar-pilot project in particular, is the international agriculture research group CGIAR, whose program on climate change, agriculture and food security seeks to provide financial incentives for farmers to be more climate-clever; Parmer is one of them. With his solar pump, he can limit water pumping to what he needs and sell the excess energy back to the grid, relieving stress on depleted aquifers.

As he and I looked at the rice paddy, an oxcart loaded with handpicked cattle fodder, tied with scraps of fabric in bundles, plodded by on a rutted dirt road. The presence of the solar array nearby deeply contrasted with these other aspects of rural life—but this imagery is now typical of the interventions and technologies being promoted to help Indian growers adapt to climatic risks. Growing food in the region will become increasingly punishing. Further north of Gujarat, in climate change hot spots like Haryana and Punjab states, studies indicate that yields of wheat—particularly vulnerable to heat stress—will decrease between 6 percent and 23 percent over the next three decades. Such unpredictability is persuading farmers to re-envision the business of their livelihoods.

Joginder Singh, 68, of Noopur Bet in Punjab, for example, has started to adopt an entire system of new tools and sustainable practices. With his son, Singh uses laser-guided tractors that flatten his fields with precision and digital apps when applying fertilizer and water, improving irrigation and fertilizing efficiency, strengthening yields. He and his son also listen to voice messages of detailed weather forecasts delivered on their phones, prior to planting and throughout the season, to determine when the monsoon rains will occur—the timeframe for which is becoming, because of climate change, increasingly variable.