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Regenerative Agriculture In An Era Of Climate Change

Climate change and extreme weather variabilities have now become a reality all over the world. They impact the environment and biodiversity, farming systems, land, water, forest ecosystems and also have bearing on the life and livelihoods of the poorest people. The problem India faces serious issues relating to hunger, malnutrition and distress migration, particularly post the Covid 19 pandemic, ranking third amongst South Asian nations on the Global Hunger Index. India’s rank has dropped to 101st position among 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021. In 2020, India was placed at 94th spot, out of 107 countries. Almost 70% of people depend on agriculture and related sectors for their livelihoods. And despite its rich natural and human potential, Odisha is experiencing an agricultural crisis.

Typically, farmers in India operate on a very small scale, with over 80% working less than 5 acres. The shift to modern agriculture approaches is beyond the means of many of these farmers, and they are struggling to make traditional approaches viable with just one crop a year. As a result, many no longer view farming as a viable livelihood option.

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This crisis is being exacerbated by:

  • More extreme weather and greater frequency of droughts, flash floods, and cyclones over the last two decades. As a result crop diversity, and productivity of food and horticultural crops have reduced.
  • Under strain from extreme weather events and deepening poverty, community-level systems and organizations are collapsing.
  • Small and marginalized farmers face challenges in accessing government support for agriculture including information on markets, weather forecasts, cropping advice, post-harvest technologies, access to credit, loans, and crop insurance schemes.
  • Many of the poorest families depend on both forestry and agriculture for their nutrition, fuel wood, fodder, medicines, and livelihoods. Rapid deforestation has led to accelerated soil erosion and reduction of Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFPs). The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 recognizes the rights of the forest-dwelling communities however these rights and titles are difficult to claim.
  • Women farmers face additional barriers to claim their land rights as well as the confidence and permission to make decisions on their agriculture businesses.

The current degradation of biodiversity and soil fertility has led to increasing calls internationally to “reverse the direction of travel” of global agriculture from degenerative to regenerative approaches.

The definition of “regenerative agriculture” is “a system of principles and practices that generates agricultural products, sequesters carbon, and enhances biodiversity at the farm scale”. Important practices associated with regenerative agriculture are:

  1. minimizing or avoiding tillage
  2. eliminating bare soil
  3. encouraging plant diversity
  4. water percolation
  5. integrating on-farm livestock and cropping operations

Some systems also prioritize the minimization of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers i.e., regenerative organic agriculture. The regenerative systems include conservation agriculture; organic crop production and grazing; tree crops; agroforestry including tree-intercropping, alley cropping, SALT, multi-strata agroforestry and permaculture, silvi-pastures; multi-paddock grazing systems and rewilding.

The opportunities for regenerative agriculture occur in the global context of limited land, an increasing population and demand for food, and the need to reduce greenhouse gases and enhance biodiversity. There is agreement that existing intact ecosystems of high biodiversity need to be protected from agricultural expansion. There is also agreement that reducing waste and constraining per capita consumption of animal products is desirable. Whilst some have contrasted “land sparing” and “land sharing” approaches, there is increasing agreement that enhancement of biodiversity will benefit from land sparing approaches at a range of scales.

In many situations, conservation agriculture can sustain yields and/or lead to reduced production costs. Adding organic amendments to crops not receiving fertilizer can increase crop yields. Although certified organic production generally reduces crop and livestock yields compared to well-managed non-organic production, securing an organic premium typically results in greater profitability. The effects of agroforestry systems on food production are closely linked to the tree densities and whether the trees also provide feed and/or food. In some places, rewilding can be appropriate.

Regenerative agriculture seeks to minimize external inputs and negative external impacts outside the farm. Also, regenerative agriculture “emphasizes the use of resources found on the farm”, minimizing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It is not essential to integrate animals and crops to achieve “regenerative organic agriculture” certification, but the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is prohibited if the label organic is to be applied. The regenerative organic certification scheme builds on USDA’s certified organic standards and has three pillars relating to soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.

Pillars for Regenerative Agriculture

Foxtail Millet Regenerative Agriculture In An Era Of Climate Change
Foxtail Millet (Pc – K. Jagannath)

These four pillars form the backbone of a more resilient pathway.

1. An Adaptive and Resilient Food System

Able to respond to changing circumstances and new challenges as they emerge, adaptability and resilience are some of the most important systemic criteria for a sustainable food system, since we cannot predict all of the conditions or changes that will emerge in the future. Adaptive capacity and resilience must be built into both biophysical aspects of the system (through the preservation of biodiversity, maintenance of healthy soil systems, maintenance of buffering capacity in water bodies, etc.) and socioeconomic aspects of the system (knowledge transfer, development or organizational capacity, elimination of poverty cycles, etc.).

2. Nutritious Food For All

The most basic and fundamental challenge that the food system must address is to ensure the supply of adequate nutrition for the world’s population. Ideally, it should achieve the objective set out by the World Food Summit in Rome, which states that food security is addressed when, “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Some of the priority objectives for addressing this challenge should, at minimum, include: reducing overall food demand (e.g., through reducing food waste); progressively shifting to lower-impact, less-resource-intensive food sources; ensuring that scarce resources (land, water) are allocated to food production as a priority over non-food uses; improving economic access to food; and improving farmer productivity in the developing world.

3. Within Planetary Boundaries

A sustainable food system should remain within planetary boundaries in all of the key biophysical impact areas across the entire life cycle of food production, consumption, and disposal. Though we should continuously strive for full net zero impact within the food system, there are some areas, such as preservation of biodiversity, which should be prioritized over others.  In general, severe and irreversible impacts to complex ecological and cultural systems, and the depletion of non-renewable natural resources caused by the food system, should be addressed with the highest urgency.

Many of the approaches that are necessary to address the first two pillars are also essential for bringing the operations of the food system within the scope of the planetary boundaries. Notably, reducing food demand and shifting to lower-impact sources of food are prerequisites for bringing down the overall resource throughput of the system. In addition, this challenge requires at least the following measures: reducing the impact of existing agricultural and extractive practices (e.g., applying conservation measures, reducing nitrogen emissions, moving to lower-impact fishing techniques); Placing limits on system expansion and intensification, particularly when addressing the global yield gap (e.g., reducing arable land expansion, and if necessary directing it towards marginal lands); and investing in the development of new sustainable agricultural techniques (e.g., organic cultivars, agro-ecological, regenerative practices).

4. Supporting Livelihoods and Wellbeing

The food system should structurally support the livelihoods and well-being of people working within it. It should be possible to fully nourish and support oneself and earn a reasonable living wage in exchange for average work hours within the food system. Ensuring that the food system supports livelihoods and wellbeing is more than an end in itself; it is also essential for addressing the other three pillars. Without secure livelihoods, smallholder farmers and fishermen will continue to struggle in building the necessary capacity and resource base to transition to sustainable models of production. A resilient system cannot be built upon an unstable foundation. Therefore, addressing the systemic structures that perpetuate poverty is critical to the success of achieving a sustainable food system. These four pillars offer an alternative pathway.

A counter-movement to intensive, conventional agricultural and extractive systems is slowly emerging. These practices still only make up a minority of the global agricultural production and are generally under-researched. New practices and food processing techniques present a small, but promising, new direction for a sustainable food system. We can produce sufficient food, even for a much larger population, if structural changes are made to how we approach both production and consumption. To successfully move towards a sustainable food system, we must consider the systemic nature of the system’s behaviours and impacts.

If we do not address and change the central root causes that lead to multiple impacts, impacts will continue to occur. To ensure that solutions are comprehensive and adaptive, we need to hard-wire systems and Rights Based Approach(es) thinking into food policy. By accounting for systemic effects, we can come to understand feedback loops and adverse effects early on and adapt policy accordingly.

Regenerative agriculture holds the key to tackling these issues. Regenerative agriculture is a sustainable alternative to modern agricultural systems that often bypass smallholder farmers and degrade ecosystems. It promotes farming systems that re-connect people with nature, enabling smallholder farmers to achieve a decent standard of living, whilst protecting the environment and maintaining the natural resources and ecosystems they already have and depend on.

An ambitious systems approach will be required to promote regenerative agriculture as a sustainable livelihood solution for marginalized farming communities and Indigenous people. too address the challenges to sustainable agricultural practices and deforestation, Government, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and private sector actors will need to support and promote regenerative farming systems and practices. Developmental actors can establish small “eco-village” pilots using Sloping Agriculture Land Technology (SALT) models. Developmental actors can work on the conservation of local landraces and agro-biodiversity by facilitating cultivation of local varieties of cereals, minor millets, pulses, oilseeds, and vegetables. Working with private sector actors, we will demonstrate the use of solar energy, drip irrigation systems, food processing, post-harvest technologies and marketing.

Developmental actors can :-

  • Promote participatory community forest protection, conservation, and sustainable management.
  • Work with farmers to organize and strengthen their local farmers groups including women farmers groups and Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs). It will be important to support these groups to fully understand their rights under current legislation and facilitate improved access to government programmes and rights.
  • Support small scale farmers and Indigenous people to successfully access markets to empower women, youth, and other market actors within key value chains to build strong relationships with buyers and other actors and understand how to make these relationships work well for them.
  • Developmental actors can use the evidence generated to strengthen the entire system, working with government departments and the private sector to influence and bring about changes in programme, policy and practice.

A few pointers for Development support organizations work on Regenerative Agriculture

Minor Millets2 Regenerative Agriculture In An Era Of Climate Change
Minor Millets (Pc – K. Jagannath)
  • Focus on Regenerative Agriculture: There is a need and a wide scope to work with most marginalized communities especially indigenous communities and small and marginal farmers on issues pertaining to regenerative agriculture and sustainable livelihoods.
  • The work by Developmental actors on Regenerative agriculture will contribute towards the realization of SDG 1 (Reduce Poverty), 2 (Zero Hunger), 8 (Decent work and economic growth and 15 (Life on Land).
  • There is a need to look into critical areas of work in the sectors of Forestry with the Agricultural continuum, community capacity building and resilience, addressing issues of chronic hunger and malnourishment and promoting sustainable livelihoods of most marginalized and excluded communities.
  • The areas of engagement can be on both the “production side and conservation of biodiversity” and “demand side” for linking the primary producers and forest dwellers with the markets and final consumers. Another component will be on community-based preparedness on natural disasters like cyclones, flash floods, heat waves etc.
  • Developmental actors can support and promote work on Agriculture Value Chains and NTFP Value Chains by linking private companies/entrepreneurs with the farming communities. These could be some of the entry point activities in Odisha for Practical Action, based on its experience and expertise on working with rural communities, agriculture value chains and working with private sector actors. Motivating and supporting youth to be engaged in farming and allied sectors, value addition and marketing, supporting Start Ups and entrepreneurial activities, promoting sustainable livelihoods and green jobs etc., to check distress migration will be of pivotal importance.
  • Rights based programming will be crucial to support the work on the ground. Accessing the rights, entitlements, government development schemes and programmes on agriculture and allied, social security, nutrition, health, employment and other basic services, Government infrastructure and services will be important from a Rights based programming perspective/approach. This will ensure sustainability of the programme interventions.
  • The Post Covid scenario has further aggravated the agrarian crisis and distress migration. It is a challenge for all development actors including Government, CSOs, NGOs, Banks, private sector actors, UN agencies and other development players to pitch in and address this crisis both at the “Source” and “Destination” levels.
  • CSOs can play an important role in Odisha as a development and humanitarian assistance as a technical and resource organization. The major areas of Technical Assistance could be in the areas of Regenerative agriculture and community-led Disaster Risk Reduction, support and promote climate-resilient cropping systems, best practices and models, which are climate-resilient and scalable by the Government and other development organizations.
  • Geographical focus – Poorest areas: Developmental actors need to focus on the poorest areas and work on a “scale” (covering contiguous large patches of land). For example in Odisha, the Geographical focus of work could include the districts of Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur, Rayagada, Balangir, Subarnapur, Kalahandi, Nuapada, Kandhamal, Deogarh, Angul, Dhenkanal, Jharsuguda, Gajapati, Mayurbhanj, Sundargarh, Keonjhar and a few vulnerable pockets in the coastal districts like Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara which are prone to multiple disasters like cyclones, floods etc. for supporting pilots and scalable models on regenerative agriculture.
  • Rights Based Programming on Regenerative Agriculture: Rights Based programming will be crucial for taking forward the regenerative work in India in collaboration with Government, private sector actors and civil society organizations. Organizations need to formulate a Rights Based Programming on Regenerative Agriculture specific to the local regions. Empowering targeted communities for accessing government development schemes and programmes on Food (National Food Security Act – NFSA), Agriculture and allied, nutrition and MGNREGS, entitlements, Government infrastructure and services on a sustainable basis. Generic programme on Regenerative agriculture may not be impactful in India. Creation of jobs, especially for rural youth and prevent distress migration at “source” levels.
  • Agri and NTFP Value chains: Developmental actors can support and promote young people with viable agri-enterprises and linking them with private companies for procurement and marketing. Value addition components of PA could include supporting and promoting work on Agricultural Value chains, especially Minor millets, vegetables and NTFP value chains, support and promote Awareness, Training and Capacity building of farmers, Farmers Organizations and Government authorities etc. These can be supported in specific agriculture production clusters. For example, in Odisha like Coffee, Mango, Maize, Mahua Oil, Coffee soap, Ginger, Turmeric, NTFPs like Sal seeds, Karanj Oil (Derris indica), Siali Leaf plates, Cashewnut, Jamun, Ber, Bael, Myrobalans like Amla, Harida and Bahada, Pulses like Katting, Arhar, Rajma, Palua (Arrowroot), Black Pepper, Lemon grass, Potato, Vegetables, Floriculture, Apiculture (Wild honey), Jackfruit chips, Hill brooms, Aromatic/scented varieties of Rice like Kala Jeera, Black Rice, Mushroom cultivation, food processing, small poultry, etc.
  • Private sector engagements: Developmental actors can engage with private sector actors on the need to support and promote Regenerative Agriculture in Odisha where it is a WIN-WIN situation both for the farming communities and private sector companies and actors. Technical Assistance and support work on “demand” and “supply” side on Regenerative Agriculture, from a Climate resilience perspective including fragile forested ecosystems and high scale of distress migration.
  • Knowledge Hub: Establishment and operationalization of a “Knowledge Hub” on Regenerative Agriculture in Odisha. Recruitment of Nodal person and team to lead the hub in close collaboration with Agriculture University, Government technical resource and training institutions like O.U.A.T. and IMAGE and other civil society organizations.
  • Fundraising: Fundraising from back donors, INGOs, CSR Foundations, Bilaterals, Multi-laterals, UN agencies, private donors, NABARD and Government will have to be a priority for the NGOs and CSOs. Bidding for Request for Proposals both in India and elsewhere, responding to various national and international Call for Proposals – Indian Trusts and Foundations, European Commission, ADB, The World Bank, IFAD, FAO, etc.
  • Strategic Partnerships: Influencing the CSR agenda of private companies on supporting Regenerative Agriculture will have to be focused. Practical Action needs to play a bridge role between private sector actors and reference marginalized communities to support and promote concrete actions on the ground on Regenerative Agriculture.
  • Partnerships with Government, Government marketing agencies, Farmers Organizations, NGOs, INGOs, CBOs, private sector actors like Green companies, service providers (weather based information services, agro-advisory services etc., small agricultural implements companies, organic crop control companies, renewable energy companies etc.), networks and alliances and media will have to be explored for larger co-ordination of the development efforts and synergy.
  • Developmental actors can partner with like-minded NGOs, INGOs, private sector companies and actors, CSR Foundations, bilaterals, Multi-laterals UN agencies, NABARD and Nationalized banks, Knowledge partners, State and National Governments and key Government line departments. Funding opportunities need to be explored with donors and CSR Foundations. Collaborate and establish organic partnerships with like-minded grassroots NGOs, Farmers Organizations, research foundations, private sector actors, especially Green companies working in the Agriculture and allied sectors, civil society organizations, networks and campaign groups for supporting work on Regenerative Agriculture. Mapping of such organizations and due diligence will be required.
  • Developmental actors may to explore signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work with the Government, NABARD, Nationalized banks, marketing agencies OLM and ORMAS and Missions like Millets Mission, Mission Shakti, POSHAN Abhiyan. Coordination with Disaster Risk Reduction work of Practical Action and Odisha State Disaster Mitigation Authority (OSDMA) in Odisha for at-risk communities, vulnerable to natural disasters like cyclones, floods, heat waves etc., will be crucial.
  • Lobby, Policy & Advocacy: Policy influencing work with “Rights Holders” and “Duty Bearers”, including the State and National Government and the reference marginalized communities and their associations will have to be the focus for Practical Action in India to further strengthen the work on Regenerative Agriculture. Networking with State and National level Campaigns on Right to Food and Work, indigenous peoples’ movements, National Alliance for Peoples’ Movement (NAPM), Vada Na Todo Abhiyan (VNTA), Andhra Pradesh Vyavyasayula Vruttidharula Union (APVVU), Asian Peasants Coalition (APC), Manila, other INGOs working in Odisha like TDH, Germany, ChildFund India and Foundations like Azim Premji Foundation at local, state, national and international on immediate and emergent issues in Agriculture, Right to Food, nutritional security, wage employment, agriculture policies and Acts impacting the poor and most vulnerable communities.
Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.

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