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 due to weather extremes and climate change. This process has accelerated the loss of soil moisture, nutrients, productivity, food security, biodiversity, and the environment at large. Over the period toxic chemicals exposed and made the soil 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 cannot protect the soil against erosion. As a result of this and additional factors like high labor intensity and low remunerations, disenchantment to agriculture paced up and began the process of rendering the land barren. Smallholders are left with no options except migrating for alternate sources of livelihoods, which have made their lives vulnerable and undignified.
The specific problem of hill agriculture is soil degradation caused by soil moisture stress and topsoil runoff. 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 per ha higher in Uttarakhand Himalayas. Continuous depletion of soil fertility has led to low yields affecting the food security of the smallholders. It has become very difficult for them to continue agriculture because restoration of soil fertility every year is becoming a difficult task on scattered and far-flung terraced fields. At present, investment, including manpower, is qualitatively more than compared to return. Therefore, smallholders are opting for off-farm livelihoods, further adding their miseries. Mountain agriculture around 2323.40 thousand hectares or 44.4% of total mountain land, supporting 12% of the total population of the world, everywhere faces similar problems depending upon the topography, weather conditions, and pattern of precipitations.
Uttarakhand has a total of 0.74 million hectares of agricultural land or 14% of the total reported area. Of this, 89% are small and marginal. The net irrigated area to net sown is 45%, but it is mainly concentrated in the foothills, plains, and the valleys, whereas, in the mountains, less than 10% of areas are irrigated. The share of area under millet cultivation to agriculture is 0.17 million ha (finger millet and amaranth) or 22.7%, which is continuously depleting, was once above 80%. The figures are not available for barnyard millets, proso, and foxtail millets. The reasons for the declining area under millet as cited above also include a change in food habits from a staple diet of millets to fine grains. The decreasing area under millet and increasing under wheat and rice means the large-scale production of methane gas, which is one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
The solution to the problems lies in analyzing the weakest and strongest linkage of the livelihood system of hill peasants and the agro-climatic conditions. Despite the factors like soil erosion, erratic nature of precipitations, weather extremes, the upper crust of soil is quite fertile and the habitat of innumerable flora and fauna. Flora species include several indigenous grains and medicinal plants, which means a high potential for diversification. Besides, women are the main stakeholders of agriculture and in every village their SHGS are present. Due to the liberal character of the hill society, rural women frequently take part in the meetings means a good mobility factor, and the new generation of women is also educated. So the need is to take measures on soil erosion mitigation and make the land productive through various ex-situ, in-situ soil moisture conservation and formulation of organic fertilizer and pesticides on the one hand and educate marginal farmers including women on organic technology, finance, credit, and value addition, and get them tied-up with suitable marketing agencies.
We propose an innovative 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, foxtail, and finger millets, maize, and amaranths. These provide a better canopy cover and a layer of residues obstruct overland flow. The dense foliage of erosion-resistant leguminous crops like cowpea and dry beans reduces soil loss by preventing the rains from biting the soil surfaces directly. Similarly, Fagnai a traditional practice of the Garhwal region (leaving the land fallow for one season) not only protects topsoil from being carried away by water through residues but also helps the soil to regain fertility, whereas modern organic methods, including vegetative barriers, vermicomposting, bacterial fertilization, seed treatment, integrated pest management, etc. further contribute to mitigating soil erosion, replenishing soil nutrients and microorganisms. These can be clubbed together with old and new farming methods and put into a technology package. This practice is also climate-resilient which not only ensures soil health and restores fertility, increases productivity and biodiversity, but also contributes to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sinks.
The emphasis is also on the social enterprise of climate-smart farming. Therefore, the nutritious and medicinal ingredients of millets are taken into account for establishing the linkage between production and value addition, chains, and marketing. Several scientific studies including the most recent one undertaken by five organizations and led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) claimed that consumption of millets can reduce total cholesterol, triacylglycerols (commonly known as triglycerides), Cardiovascular Disease, and BMI. This new study analyzed the data of earlier 19 studies with nearly 900 people published in Frontiers. The results of this study along with our recent study that showed that the consumption of millets reduced the risk of developing type-2 diabetes and helped manage type-2 diabetes, highlights a critical need to look carefully at how to most appropriately bring millets back into the diets in India and ensure this reaches the majority. Hence there is a high possibility of attracting new consumers and a new market for Himalayan millets. Consumers all over the world, who are today more health-conscious, can be seen in the growing global organic food market which is expected to grow from $201.77 billion in 2020 to $221.37.
Our target population is smallholders (marginal farmers) Uttarakhand hill. Their need is to mitigate soil erosion caused due to surface runoff to restore soil fertility. The concept of ‘unique technology package of ecological farming practices’ envisages addressing their needs for nutrients and food security, so that their interests are reoriented to farming the mainstay of their dignified livelihood economy. Conventional farming or industrial agriculture has not only caused immense loss to the soil, biodiversity, and the environment but also pushed the smallholders to the brink of vulnerability by turning the trade against their favor. Here sustainable agriculture practices focus on sustainable intensification for soil and water conservation, to improve soil fertility, increase productivity and food security. Sustainable intensification can imbibe climate adaptability tendencies among smallholders which help in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and increase in carbon sinks, integrating with national climate plans known as the NDC in UN parlance. The project can be implemented on the basis of a cluster approach consisting of 10 to 20 villages.
It is scalable and replicable because of the innovative resilience methodology that can be applied everywhere in mountain agriculture because resilience is often used as a measure of a socio-ecological system’s capability to respond and adapt to a new condition. Innovations really depend on the applications of the interventions and knowledge. In Uttarakhand, mountain crops like barnyard millet, finger millet, foxtail millet, proso millet amaranths, and leguminous crops like cowpea and dry beans not only protect soil from runoff but have the inherent biological gene to tolerate drought conditions and weather fluctuations, which make them resilient to climate change.
Ranveer Singh Rana