The Winter of Our Disconnect and the Neglect of Soil

Industrial agriculture has been a big driver of climate change – it’s time we took efforts to replace it with a more ecologically peaceful and culturally aware form of food production and consumption

Terrace farming in Kasauli in the Shivalik hills, Himachal Pradesh. The yellow on the roof of the building is maize drying. Credit: kkoshy/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Terrace farming in Kasauli in the Shivalik hills, Himachal Pradesh. The yellow on the roof of the building is maize drying. Credit: kkoshy/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The historic Paris Agreement signed in December 2015 articulates the need to hold the “increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels”. It also promises to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (Article 2 of the Paris Agreement). This is a significant step, moving away from the complete-denial approach of the past, particularly by leading historic greenhouse gas contributors.

In the lead up to the Paris summit, countries put forth their INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), meant to provide the way forward to achieve the 2 °C goal. However none of the commitments made by the various countries have been translated into any form of legally binding requirements in the Agreement, and the final document recognises this. It “notes with concern that the estimated aggregate greenhouse gas emission levels in 2025 and 2030 resulting from the INDCs do not fall within least-cost 2º C scenarios but rather lead to a projected level of 55 gigatonnes in 2030, and also notes that much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than those associated with the INDCs in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2º C above pre-industrial levels by reducing emissions to 40 gigatonnes or to 1.5 ̊C above pre-industrial levels by reducing to a level to be identified in the special report referred to in paragraph 21 below (Section II, 17 of the Paris Agreement).”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), and several other studies have clearly shown that industrial agriculture is the single largest contributor of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. It contributes to climate change through direct emissions from fossil fuel usage in production of pesticides and fertilisers, mechanisation, and more significantly from its role in land-use changes and deforestation. It is reported that nearly 20% of global GHG emissions are from land use changes. Worldwide, agriculture is pushing into forests, grasslands, wetlands causing extensive global deforestation and soil destruction and degradation. Among the main drivers of this deforestation are the expansion of industrial plantations for the production of commodities such as soy, sugarcane, oil palm and maize.

Any way forward to deal with the climate crises must therefore have at its core a transformation of the way we produce and consume food, and this transformation must start with the soil, with the understanding and commitment that soil and not oil is the bedrock on which we need to build our food cultures and systems. But as Raj Patel says in a recent article, it is not just about different ways of producing food or approaches to farming but about different social approaches: centralised, top-down, industrial and technology-driven approach where seeds, land, water are considered as inputs versus farmers as innovators and educators, building soil over generations and co-existing with the environment.  

The deafening silence around soil, food and food systems in Paris was therefore incomprehensible. The main conference did not even list soil in its agenda, considering it’s a substance that has been sequestering carbon over millennia. Soil is being cleared in forests and grasslands for plantations, its fertility destroyed through intensive agriculture, its floral and faunal diversity (particularly microbes, insects, worms and myriad other creatures that are responsible for holding the carbon in the earth) stripped. All these actions are releasing the sequestered carbon instead of keeping it in the ground.

Does soil feature in India’s climate change action plan?

India is challenged by malnutrition (under- and over-nutrition), deep agrarian distress, increasing inequity and vulnerability of marginalised communities to climate change. A lot of this can be attributed to the way we have treated soil over the last 30-40 years. India also has the solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and they solutions lie in its vibrant and diverse food cultures, diverse agro-climatic zones, resilient and hardy varieties of plants and animals, a history of community-based conservation and the experiential knowledge of communities that have lived close to the land.

The Government of India’s Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP) has outlined eight national missions to meet its INDCs. A brief review of two of these missions are directly relevant in the context of soil, food and life-supporting systems.  

The National Mission for a Green India (NMGI; Section 3.6 of the CCAP) is already underway in some of the most biodiverse regions of the country. The stated objective of the mission: “increasing forest cover and density as a whole of the country and conserving biodiversity”. This is proposed to be done using “fast-growing” climate hardy trees. What does this mean? Whenever a programme is done in “mission mode”, it is characterised by targets, timelines and quick results. Typically, the fast-growing trees include eucalyptus, exotic acacia species, casuarinas and pines (particularly in the hills where they will replace broadleaf deciduous trees or evergreens), selected centrally by government departments. Leaves of many of these trees do not degrade easily, are not eaten by animals and do not contribute to formation of soil organic matter. The local (diverse) vegetation is cleared, sequestered soil carbon released to the atmosphere, and replaced with species that do not support soil carbon sequestration. Nuances of ecosystem diversity, selecting species based on local knowledge, relevance and soil-biota associations do not find a place in the process.

Whether it is Green India Mission or REDD+ (the global UN programme aimed at mitigating climate change), the action on the ground has been to raise monoculture plantations, typically possessing commercial value, like oil palm, eucalyptus, tapioca, etc. These programmes are not informed by the understanding around the significance of soil carbon nor by the need for different approaches that are necessary to address distinctions between tropical and temperate soils, especially in the levels of microbial activity. Hence, what is done in the name of climate change mitigation is clearing, levelling and planting saplings (to meet targets), and taking over local grazing lands, food sources, the commons and forcing people out. This not only destroys soil but erodes generations of experiential knowledge around soil and soil conservation, knowledge that is the bedrock of our food systems.

The recent approval by the Government of India of 100% FDI in plantations is a further step in this direction. The measure is expected to enhance domestic palm oil production so that it can continue to be provided cheaply through the Public Distribution System (PDS). The locations selected by the State for these plantations are the rich biodiverse forest areas where adivasis and other indigenous communities live. This is in spite of the extensive experience of forest degradation and habitat loss that has emerged from Malaysia and Indonesia. The fallout of this policy measure will be destruction of resilient carbon sinks, release of greater soil carbon through clearance of these forests, loss of moisture holding capacity of these soils, loss of food, medicine and livelihood basis of these communities. In addition, continuing to provide palm oil cheaply through the PDS will exacerbate the undernutrition levels among the sections of society whose health is already severely compromised. Why has palm oil systematically replaced all locally nutritious edible oils (groundnut, mustard, sesame and coconut)?

To counter this malnutrition, genetically modified foods targeting specific nutrients such as Golden Rice for Vitamin A will be pushed by industry and an increasingly agribusiness-oriented Government of India. We are already seeing the push for field trials for oilseeds such as mustard. This lays the foundation for the use of biotechnology (Section 3.7.4 of the CCAP) to engineer C4 crops, drought and pest-resistant varieties action proposed as part of the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (Section 3.7 of the CCAP).

Drought-resistance, pest-resistance, and soil and moisture rejuvenation practiced by small farmers across the country for several generations continues through conservation of local grain, vegetable, fruit varieties, indigenous animal breeds and agro-ecological practices – and the role of all of these enterprises in cooling the planet has been extensively documented by the 2005 IAASTD Report. But there is no mention of any of this in the proposed national plan.

No efforts to conserve soil moisture

Soil and moisture conservation in India is always stated as the main objective of Integrated Watershed Management Programmes. The CCAP refers to generations of data from the GIS- (Geographical Information Systems) based maps for soil resource planning and land use planning at the level of the watershed. Over the years, large volumes of data from this programme have been generated, particularly for rain-fed and semi-arid areas. How is this proposed to be translated into climate change mitigation actions? Thus far, except where civil society organisations are active, this data has not translated in any way to long-term soil and moisture conservation and enhanced sustainability of the livelihoods of small farmers dependent on soil-moisture, and the sparse soil organic content in these fragile landscapes.

There is no integration and cohesion between the various proposed missions. The National Water Mission (Section 3.4 of the CCAP) “proposes to explore options to augment water supply in water stressed areas, integrated water policies to cope with variability in rainfall and river flows at the basin level”. Unless this is linked to land use, cropping patterns and practices, it is impossible to have an integrated strategy to address food security in an increasingly unpredictable climate. Interlinking rivers has already commenced in the country. From a climate change perspective, this is one of the most irresponsible actions that could be undertaken. What is perceived as a water-rich basin today could be water-deficient in the future. The south-west and north-east monsoon in 2015 showed us very clearly how unpredictable rainfall can be. River hydrology, ecology, soil deposition patterns, flooding and drainage to the sea will change. There is no understanding of how this will change the livelihoods and food production systems.

Using soil for mitigating the adverse effects of climate change

India has the opportunity to be transformative in its impact and show leadership by putting forth an integrated approach to climate change. The core of the strategy should be soil revival, rejuvenation and soil protection. It should be about drawing from the knowledge of local agricultural systems, strengthening and supporting grassroots democratic decision-making processes, livelihoods of small farmers and the local diverse and culturally relevant food systems.

The diversity of ecosystem and agro-climatic zones in the country need to be understood and supported rather than trying to homogenise them through a second green revolution. Ecosystem-relevant governance must replace centralised decision making. For example, conservation of grassland ecosystems are as critical as conserving forests. Trees must not be planted indiscriminately, destroying grasslands and the diversity and integrity of semi-arid scrubland areas. Support must be provided for agro-ecological practices that mulch and build organic and moisture content of soils, sequester carbon in our tropical soils, and build invertebrate and microbial diversity through long periods of ecological associations.

Several countries in the global south and rights activists in the global north view India’s approach to seed sovereignty as progressive (exchange of heirloom seeds and reciprocity between farmers and among communities continue to take place extensively in India unlike in several countries where this is illegal). Unless soil is at the heart of India’s plan to mitigate climate change, this too will become a challenge.

Built into agro-ecological practices is the role of animals, and so animal husbandry cannot be divorced from this process. The increased fragmentation of food production into grain, vegetable, meat, milk and eggs brought about by the integration of the Indian dairy, poultry and meat sectors with the global, corporatised industry is taking us away from an agro-ecological future. It is  supporting a mismanaged food system that is overheating the planet. Extensive work by IAASTD and local experience from Asia, Africa, Latin America has shown that small farmers and agro-ecological practices can cool the planet. The knowledge and the experience exist, and it is now a question of making a political decision to move away from industrial agriculture and embrace community-led agriculture.

Land use policies must be flexible to allow for local, context-specific approaches. For instance: (i) protecting and enhancing soil, forest and grassland diversity using local knowledge, supporting cultivation of dry-land crops in rain-fed areas – for which there is no dearth of local knowledge or experience; and (ii) mandating the implementation of the National Food Security Act across the country with decentralised production, procurement and distribution so that culturally-relevant food is made available.

Industrial agriculture is responsible for 44-57% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Unless this issue is addressed head-on, mitigation or adaptation will be a losing battle. India still produces a large share of its food from small farms, with 60% of net cultivated area being dry-land/rain-fed areas. For any climate-resilience and food security strategy for the future, India must put soil front and centre. It must push for a transformation to locally produced food in small farms, democratically governed markets and an urban planning approach that integrates food production. We must take control of our food systems and assert our sovereign right to soil and food. It is not a novel idea. Perception informs action and strategy. If we continue to see the State as the “owner” of our lands, waters, grasslands and forests, we will be disenfranchised.

  • jimrussell

    The Republican clown act continues. The truth is those that don’t believe or understand global climate
    change are the nations supremely ignorant and national laughing stock.
    But remember nimrods, don’t drive over the horizon or you will fall off
    the edge of earth.