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Climate Change and Agriculture in India: Avenues for Mitigation

Centre for Education and Documentation

08 / 2010

In India, it is estimated that 28% of the GHG emissions are from agriculture; about 78% of methane and nitrous oxide emissions are also estimated to be from agriculture.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide is emitted mainly by the fertilizer sector. Every quintal of nitrogen applied in farming emits 1.25 kg of nitrous oxide and globally half of the nitrogen applied to crops is lost to the environment. The fertiliser sector also consumes 1.2 percent of the world’s energy and is responsible for approximately 1.2 percent of total emissions of GHGs worldwide. In India, fertilizer industry uses 25 percent of natural gas, 18 percent of naptha and 14 percent of fuel oil.


Another potent GHG is methane which is emitted in copious amount during paddy cultivation. In India, of a total area of 99.5 Mha under cereal cultivation, 42.3 Mha (or 42.5%) is under rice cultivation. It is grown under flooded conditions and the seedbed preparation involves puddling or plowing when the soil is wet to destroy aggregates and reduce the infiltration rate of water. Such anaerobic conditions lead to emission of methane. Emission of methane from rice paddies in India is estimated at 2.4 to 6 Teragram (Tg) out of the 16 to 34 Tg from global rice cultivation and 25.4 to 54 Tg total methane emissions.

Burning of Crop Residue

Another major contributor of GHGs is the burning of crop residue. In Punjab, wheat crop residue of 5,500 Sq km and paddy crop residues of 12,685 Sq km are burnt each year. Every 4 tons of rice or wheat grain produces about 6 tons of straw and each tonne of straw on burning releases 3 kg particulate matter, 60 kg CO, 1,460 kg CO2, 199 kg ash and 2 kg SO2. About 32-76% of the straw weight and 27-73% nitrogen are lost due to burning.


Energy for irrigation projects, power subsidy, etc. also contributes to GHG emission. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, lift irrigation schemes are being promoted in a big way. It is estimated that by 2012, 4.7 million hectares in the state would be brought under irrigation. Seven and half horse power motor will be used for every 10 acres and 500,000 such motors have to be installed in the next four years. This would require 3.75 million hp electricity (« 2,775 megawatt). Major lift irrigation schemes need 6407 megawatt power while the minor ones need 500 megawatt more. In order to produce and supply one megawatt power, Rs. 40 million is required to create infrastructure for electricity generation and Rs. 45 million for transmission and distribution.


The livestock sector is another major contributor to production of GHGs. While it is true that livestock contributes to GHGs, it does not hold good for India, our farms are much smaller than those that exist in the West. In the West, stall fed systems of livestock rearing creates a problem with the dung, their feed carries larger ecological footprints. Livestock rearing in our country is seen more as a income generation activity for the small farmers specially in the dryland belt where they possess about 8 to 10 goats/sheep and one or two cows, which also provide manure to the small farms.

Towards Mitigation

Dr Malla Reddy of Accion Fraterna, a large NGO working in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh says that the present mode of agriculture contributing to the climate change is a cause of concern. Because we are using a enormous amount of chemical-fertilizers, chemical-pesticides and machines. The machines contribute a lot to climate change, if you are using a tractor, you are using oil, not only you are using oil for running the tractor, you use much more energy in producing a tractor.

Despite this evidence, very little has been done to find alternatives to emission heavy practices. The consumption and production of fertilizers in India is increasing by leaps and bounds: in 2006/07, consumption reached 21 mt of nutrients, a 9-fold increase since 1970, while the subsidy bill is estimated at Rs. 1,197 billion this year, a 3-fold increase over the previous year on account of the global commodity price spike.

This subsidy as well as indulgence in chemical farming is justified on saying that we need to feed the population. Responding as chairman to session on “GHG emission in an intensive agriculture scenario” at the National Workshop on Climate Change & Agriculture organised by Centre for Sustainable agriculture, Mr. Shyam Saran the then principal negotiator for India on Climate Change said, “As far as shifting our approach to sustainable agriculture is concerned, we have to keep in mind the quantity of food that the burgeoning population of this country needs. We have witnessed the Green Revolution helping the country achieve self-sufficiency in food grain production. The test will be whether the model that is being proposed and discussed at this workshop can deliver equally well.”

Responding to this, Ms. Neth Dano of the Third World Network, said, a comprehensive review of 293 studies worldwide carried out by researchers at the University of Michigan and was published by the Journal of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems in 2008. It found that organic farming out-yields conventional agriculture by a factor of 1.3 in the major crops compared.

Sustaining Agriculture in the era of Climate Change

Sustainable practices such as organic farming, natural farming can help farmers adapt to the changing climate. Integrated farming systems based on locally available resources by including trees, livestock, water management can help mitigate climate change to a large extent and improve the quality of life of the farmers.

According to the FAO study of 2007, organic farms use on an average 33 to 56 per cent less energy per hectare. Organic farming reduces its fossil fuel dependence in many ways.

Crop rotation and usage of biological fertilisers(organic compost) can increase the soil carbon content and thus help in sequestering carbon. Integrating trees in farms helps in feeding the livestock, as well as improving soil organic content, they also help in minimising water run-off during rains. Livestock, specially the local breed improve the soil organic content with manure, they can be fed with fodder(crop residues) without burning. Used as recycled biomass, crop residues potentially translates into organic carbon. Thus, by implementing soil conservation schemes, changing from mono-cropping to multi-cropping by including legumes, rotating crops, planting tree and harvesting water, we can reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture to a large extent.

A Viable Living for the Farmer

The other argument put forward by the establishment is that for farms to be economically viable, they need to be upscaled in terms of technology and size. It is only then that the farmer will be in a position to earn more from their occupation. In fact the entire subsidy for farm inputs, from seeds, fertiliser to chemicals, electricity and irrigation, has been justified on the grounds that if the farmer cannot make a living out of agriculture, our food security stands to be threatened.

There is however a need to figure out which farmer is being sought to be helped. Except for the green revolution areas like Punjab and Haryana, farming economics is multidimensional and unless this is taken into account while deciding policy, we will never be able to accept that what is known as subsistence or real sustainable agriculture is an option. Conventional economics looks at livelihoods in a single dimension where every household has to engage in one economic activity, which should sustain itself. The reality in small farms is just the opposite.

We got a better understanding of this in an interview with Dr. Sheshagiri Rao, an agricultural scientist and farmer in a semi-arid zone. He says that the small to middle farmer is only a part time farmer. Probably only 20-30% of the farmer’s income - his family income comes from farming. A very large portion comes from other things like wage, it comes from animals that is livestock especially small ruminants like sheep.

CED: Could you just explain this mix of the economics

Sheshagiri Rao: When as a young scientist, we designed the study of this area, we related only to groundnut, 95% of the agricultural area is simply under this one crop, that too one variety TMV2 for the past 40 years. With this kind of cropping we thought the most important livelihood is groundnut. We wanted to research on groundnut so that we will help the farmers. After doing 8 years of intense research, which was participatory, we found that they were not really interested. We found that not even 5% of our research which we had done by working with them was really adopted. Because they know groundnut crop is a probability, which simply depends on the rainfall distribution. So they will never rely on it for all of their family income. Groundnut was like a lottery for them. We then broadened the research to look into the entire livelihood. Then we found two things. The most profitable option here which never fails is sheep and goat keeping. We have found that sheep and goat keepers have never been poor. The first option that which goes with agriculture is therefore sheep & goat keeping. In terms of contribution to income too, it generates as much as agriculture. Sheep & goat keeping is a form of gathering. It is almost zero investment because grazing land is free. He invests only his labour and nothing else. Because of the low cost involved, it is highly profitable. Next largest contributor to income is wages and remittances from the city or migrant labour.

In terms of rural economy the third important resource are Trees. There are a lot of trees here – tamarind trees, mango trees, orchards. The tree owners are not very efficient in handling the produce. So many of the small farmers take these on annual lease and they get a big margin out of it. The fourth is craft. This region has significant amount of craft. There are some specialist tribes like the Lambadas. They do a lot of craft. They also process a lot of Non Timber Forest Produce(NTFPs) – Broom, limestone etc.

The above case, demonstrates that it is absurd to think of farmer remuneration or sustainable agriculture within the same paradigm as that of a factory. And so the imperative of shifting to more ecological farming models as climate change mitigation strategy is being wrongly framed within the context of being incorrectly posited within the same economic frame. At the National Workshop on Climate Change & Sustainable Agriculture, organised by Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, it was felt that there is a need to build internalized input based production systems which are low water demanding, and are based on location-specific cropping patterns. Farming needs to be aligned with locally adapted crop varieties and agro-diversity based cropping systems.


It would be ideal if the methods for adaptation to climate change coincides with measures required for mitigation. In agriculture this seems to be provided by diversified or integrated farm activities. Ecological farming practices which can maximise the local resource use. Many of these practices are based on indigenous knowledge and focus on building soil biological productivity. Non Pesticidal Management, Organic Soil Management, Community Seed Banks, System of Rice Intensification, soil moisture management, Localisation of markets etc have already proven to be useful. These now need to gain official recognition and support.


changement climatique, agriculture, agriculture biologique, agriculture durable, agriculture et environnement

, Inde


L’Inde et le changement climatique


This article is available in French: Changement climatique et agriculture en Inde : pistes d’adaptation

Read also Climate Change and the Small Scale Farmer in India

and the dossier on Small scale farming in India edited by the CED

Further readings:


Texte original

CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) - CED Mumbai: 3 Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai - 400 001, INDIA - Phone: (022) 22020019 CED Bangalore: No. 7, 8th Main , 3rd phase, Domlur 2nd Stage, Bangalore - 560071, INDIA - Phone: (080) 25353397 - Inde - -,

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