Abstract: Mountain agriculture of rain-fed, especially in the Middle Himalayas is passing through an existential crisis. The crisis is land erosion by water, a continuous runoff of topsoil up to 70-80 tons per ha per year, much above the permissible limit of 11.2 tons and 62.5 tons of the world average. The crisis is further exacerbated by the use of chemicals during the green revolution period, which exposed topsoil for surface runoff because water erosion affects the soil nutrients immensely, and depleting nutrients also reversely magnify the erosion because lower production of ‘above and below ground biomass’ which protect the soil against erosion. The natural agricultural methodologies practiced before the advent of the green revolution, endowed with indigenous knowledge and wisdom were bulwark against land erosion and soil depletion. Mixed cropping and crop rotation patterns and leaving the land fallow for one crop season was the ecologically sustainable way to mitigate surface runoff and maintain soil nutrients by growing of two or more millet crops in a mixture to provide a better canopy over and obstructs overland flow. The dense foliage of erosion-resistant leguminous crops reduces soil loss by preventing the rains from biting the soil surfaces directly. The impact of changes in the practice of mountain agriculture in post green revolution period saw its further deterioration which led to disillusionment to farming by small and marginal landholders with land being left uncultivated in many areas, expedited migration in search of off-farming livelihoods. In this research project, we will try to analyze the dimensions of mountain agriculture, its natural practices and the changes it went over the period, the crisis, and its potentiality to the adaptability of climate change.
Keywords: Mountain agriculture, climate adaptability, ecologically friendly farming practices, natural agriculture, sustainability.
Background: Right from ancient times our ancestors have been practicing agriculture which caters to their food needs. The mode of production broadly was archaic with low inputs, mainly using the natural resource base available. Smallholdings with lesser width and more length, have a limited scope of surplus production for the market. Albeit storage of a little portion of grains by a few well-to-do landholders for the difficult periods including famine. By and large hill families used to face grain crunch in every season, particularly during the months of June, July, and August, by which time the previous Kharif grains; rice and barnyard’s stores being left of emptied and fresh early crops were still 40-50 days to ripen. In a temperate zone contribution of Kharif production is almost two-third of the total annual production. In Kharif season number of grain varieties, as well as, the temperature is more conducive to production as compared to Rabi a winter crop season when temperatures plummeted quite sharply. Therefore our ancestors identified and produced some early crops known as kouni (foxtail millet) and chinna (proso millet), which ripe within 40-50 days. Except rice and wheat, other crops like Jhangora (barnyard millet), mandua (finger millet), kouni, chinna, chaulayi (amaranths) and pulses like lobia (cowpea), urad (kidney pea), tuar (pigeon pea), chhemi (dry beans) and gahat (horse gram) are tolerant to drought and weather fluctuations. The subsistence agriculture was aided by a good number of livestock maintained its land fertility with a huge supply of manure biomass mixed compost, despite continuous runoff of fertile topsoil.
Our ancestors learned from nature and on the basis of these experiences identified and chose crops that were not only ecologically friendly but also resistant to various weather extremes of drought and excessive moisture. In other words, these crops were resilient to climate change, which is a hot topic amongst environmental scientists today the world over. The indigenous knowledge and wisdom consisted of practices like mixed cropping, crop rotations, soil coverage, and leaving the land fallow for one crop season. The growing of two or more millet crops in a mixture provides a better canopy over obstructs overland flow. The dense foliage of erosion-resistant leguminous crops reduces soil loss by preventing the rains from biting the soil surfaces directly. Similarly, leaving the land fallow for one crop season and letting the crop residues lying on the field for sometimes until it was tied and hanged on trees as a reserved dry fodder for cattle for difficult times, not only protect topsoil from being carried away by water due to a layer of residues but also help the soil to regain fertility. Though the yield was low or perhaps inefficient to meet the growing demand of an increasing population, the practice was environmentally conducive resilient to climate change.
Low yields and increasing food demand changed the perception of archaic mountain agriculture practices, which found its answer in the high input supply, including hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides, plumped with the advent of the green revolution. Surplus wheat and rice production in the plains and availability through PDS have also changed the food habit of mountain inhabitants who earlier consumed highly nutritious jhangora and mandua as their staple diet changed to less nutritious and highly chemicalized wheat and rice. The changed food habit and harsh and low remunerative agricultural activities on hill slopes due to increasing land degradation led to utter negligence to mountain agriculture.
Present Crisis: Mountain farmers, mostly small and marginal holders, of rain-fed agriculture are vulnerable to the vagaries of the monsoon; frequent occurrences of drought and floods causing soil moisture stress as well as topsoil runoff. This process has accelerated the loss of soil moisture, nutrients, productivity, food security, biodiversity, and the environment. As a result of this and additional factors like green revolution effects, high labor intensity and low yields, disenchantment to agriculture paced up and began the process of rendering land uncultivated. The policy fails to protect mountain farmers from monsoon vagaries and weather extremes, which led to a continuous decrease in yields on rain-fed areas and the absence of a support mechanism like MSP, market, and organic certification especially for millet and pulse crops, also aggravated the crisis. Small and marginal landholders left with no options except migrating for alternate sources of livelihoods, which have made their lives penniless and undignified. The types of surface erosions are splash, sheet, rill, and gully, which is 62.5 tons per ha much above the tolerance limit of 11.2 tons in the world and 70-80 tons in Uttarakhand Himalayas.
The hill agriculture accounts for only 14% of the irrigated land as compared to 86% of the foothills, though geographically it is just the opposite. Continuous depletion of soil fertility has led to low yields affecting the food security of the small and marginal farmers. It has become very difficult for them to continue the agriculture because restoration of soil fertility every year is becoming a difficult task on scattered lesser width and more length terraced fields, particularly in the background of sharp declining of livestock a source of manure mixed biomass compost, an organic stimulus to restore soil fertility. At present, investment, including manpower is qualitatively more than compared to return, if we compare the agricultural returns with present unskilled labor wages. The present crisis is further exacerbated by the growing use of chemicals in absence of biomass compost during post green revolution period, which not only degraded the soil with chemicals but exposed and made it more susceptible to erosion because water erosion affects the soil nutrients immensely and depleting nutrients also reversely magnify the erosion because lower production of above and below-ground biomass which protect the soil against erosion is badly affected by the chemicals. Therefore, the small and marginal farmers are opting out for off-farm livelihoods, further adding their miseries.
Remedies: The solution is a technology package of ecological farming practices combined with old and new knowledge. The indigenous knowledge and wisdom consist of practices like mixed cropping and crop rotation; growing of two or more crops in mixture with barnyard and finger millet, maize and amaranths provide a better canopy over and a layer of residues obstructs overland flow. The dense foliage of erosion-resistant leguminous crops like kidenypea, cowpea and dry bean reduces soil loss by preventing the rains from biting the soil surfaces directly. Similarly, Fagnai (leaving the land fallow for one crop season) not only protect topsoil from being carried away by water due to a layer of residues but also help the soil to regain fertility, whereas modern organic methods, including vegetative barriers, vermicomposting, bacterial fertilization, integrated pest management, etc. further contribute mitigating soil erosion, replenishing soil nutrients and microorganisms and increasing productivity. These can be clubbed together with old and new rainwater harvesting methods and put into a technology package.
The technology is a combination of traditional and modern organic farming practices; hence the name of the package is ‘unique technology package of ecological farming practices. The technology is divided into three parts: 1. Engineering methods of ex-situ soil and water conservation. 2. Biological methods of in-situ soil and moisture conservation, biomass infiltration, and replenishment of nutrients and microorganisms. 3. Organic methods of seed treatment and conservation, disease control, and pest management, including IPM, improved cultivation methods, and organic certification of products. Here the technology interventions are very complex as well as crucial, particularly in the realm of ecologically friendly farming, as the undergoing effects of climate change compromise food system functionality by contributing to water scarcity and pest exacerbation.
Sustainability a measure of system performance involves maintaining the functionality of the system without compromising its capacity to do so in the future. Whereas resilience can be seen as a means to achieve it as it has the potential to contribute to food security by enhancing farmer’s capacity for possible changes. In a pilot project as we envisage technology interventions are through on-field trials by agricultural scientists and the development of training packages by capacity building experts to the farmers’ groups. Since target groups are marginal and small farmers, hence it will be they and in the context of the mountain the women who shoulder the major agricultural workload due to migration of male members, are the vanguard to take the technology to the fields for implementation. This practice is also climate-resilient which not only ensure soil health and restore fertility, increase productivity and biodiversity, but also contribute in decreasing greenhouse gas emission and increase carbon sinks. The increased production of mountain grains with delicious taste and rich nutrients will also cater to the need of growing consumers all over the world who are today more health-conscious and increasingly becoming sensitive to the organic nutrient value of the food, can be seen in the growing global organic market of 97 billion US$ by the end of 2017 according to IFOAM.
Climate adaptability potential of Mountain Agriculture: Topography, weather conditions, the pattern of precipitation, the dependence of 86% agriculture on rainfall, harsh and physically intensified routine and farm-related activities, absence of technology for rain-fed agriculture to offload its drudgery or labor intensity, recurring infertility of the soil due to seasonal surface runoff, green revolution effects on soil health and nutrients, inaccessible market, lack of post-harvest management, especially organic certification, all have to be accounted for analyzing the climate potential adaptability of the mountain agriculture.
Mountain agriculture due to its traditional natural practices friendly to the ecology of the area is more inclined to adopt climate change. Almost all crops except paddy and wheat, grown on rain-fed land are climate-resilient as they have inherent genes of resistivity to weather extremes. Finger millet, barnyard millet, foxtail millet, amaranths and certain pulses like pigeon pea, cowpea, kidney pea, horse gram, etc. are not only drought-tolerant, but their mixed cropping also obstructs the surface soil erosion. To make the climate adaptability practical, the need in mountain agriculture is to mitigate the topsoil runoff, a pre-condition for replenishment of soil nutrients and microorganisms to restore soil fertility. Restoration of soil fertility will reinvigorate farmers’ interests in farming, provided the government framework policy support for small marginal hilly farmers on organic inputs, post-harvest management, MSP, value chain, and organic certification.
By Ranveer Singh Rana