Side effects: India’s agricultural policy has the daunting task of meeting the demands of a growing population while keeping agricultural emissions in check | Photo: VFL Agro

Will the new laws lead to more GHG emissions from India’s farms?

Experts fear the recently passed farm laws are pushing India’s agriculture sector towards more intensive, industrial farming that comes with a larger carbon footprint

The Farmer (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, will set in motion the push for contract farming, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020, lifts regulations for storing essential grains, and thereby increasing hoarding. While the laws have been introduced in response to long standing demands for market reform, and promise to alleviate farm distress, will the single-minded focus on liberalisation eventually backfire due to neglected environmental costs?

India’s food production will have to increase substantially in the coming decades to cater to a growing population with demand predicted to increase by 70% by 2050. The fact that this will need to be done while keeping greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture in check makes the prospect significantly trickier. The agricultural sector is not only a major contributor to climate change, but also the one most affected by it. With the passing of the latest farm laws, there are fears that the direction in which Indian agricultural sector is being pushed may result in intensive agriculture with a larger carbon footprint.

Is contract farming a short-term fix?

The more contentious provisions of the laws are to do with the promotion of contract farming— a system in which farmers enter periodic contractual agreements with larger companies for specific produce and yields— as the panacea for India’s agricultural stress.

“Evidence from contract farming is that it is intensive and companies rarely have long-term interest in the land and farmers,” explains Braja Bandhu Swain, scientist and programme coordinator, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), New Delhi. Research has shown that contract farming leads to problems like degradation of traditional knowledge, soil quality and a bias towards large farmers.

India is the third-largest emitter of GHGs, and currently, agriculture accounts for about 19% of its emissions. Globally, agriculture, forestry, and other land use changes account for 24% of anthropogenic GHG emissions, mainly from deforestation and agricultural emissions.

“Intensification of agriculture is one way of reducing GHG emission per unit product. However, over-application of production resources can be damaging,” says Tek B Sapkota, Agricultural Systems and Climate Change Scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). 

Some of the most obvious outcomes of intensive farming are excess fertiliser and pesticide use, shifts towards livestock and cash crops, and land-use change, which can accelerate emissions of GHGs, including carbon dioxide (burning and fossil fuel and stubble), methane (livestock, inundating paddy fields) and nitrous oxide (fertilisers, fossil fuels). Other practices such as stubble burning and flooding of paddy fields have been identified as significant contributors to increase in carbon and nitrogen emissions as well. 

“By definition, contract farming is neutral to ecology, and focuses more on market linkage, risk reduction for farmers and price assurance,” says farmers rights activist Kapil Shah of Jatan Trust, Gujarat. However, since most companies focus on productivity and the quality, as defined by corporates for food processing, contract farming invariably leads to intensive and industrial agriculture for either export or the food processing industry. The laws, he says, do not take into consideration environmental aspects and this can have disastrous long-term consequences. 

Changing the way farms are managed

“GHG emissions from agricultural activities depend on how farms are managed, which isn’t directly related to contract farming. However, contract farming may affect the way the field is managed, consequentially influencing GHG emissions,” says Sapkota. 

A majority of India’s agricultural GHG emissions occur at the primary production state, Sapkota says. This includes the production and use of agricultural inputs, farm machinery, soil disturbance, residue management and irrigation. These steps help increase yields and improve harvests. 

“With contract farming, what matters is the technical package that is pushed. This can include finer details like what is grown, the methodology, inputs and the agricultural extension services that are pushed,” explains Shah. Unfortunately, the number of organic contract farmers are few and far between, and most global FMCG and other corporate giants practice input-intensive agriculture, he notes. 

Shah explains that contract farmers will not need any approvals from state agricultural universities, which generally vet all agricultural packages in keeping with larger policies. This means contract farmers will bypass even basic checks. 

“If the expectation was to move away from intensive, industrial farming, that is probably not the direction we are headed in,” says Shreya Sinha, a research associate at University of Cambridge. In her work across Punjab and Haryana, she has found that the industrialisation of agriculture and its impacts are already underway. 

India’s agricultural GHG footprint

A quick look at the current GHG emissions from India’s agriculture sector shows which crops and practices contribute the most to climate change. Crop and livestock production contribute 42% and 58% to total agricultural emissions respectively. Rice, wheat, cotton and sugarcane – all export-oriented cash crops – together constitute 80% of total crop emissions. Cattle, buffalo, sheep and goat constituted 99% of total livestock-related emissions. Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and West Bengal are the highest GHG emitters as they have larger area under crops and livestock.

State-Wise distribution of GHG emissions from crops, livestock and crops+livestock | Source: T.B Sapkota et al./ Science of the Total Environment (2019)
Total national emissions from crops and livestock | Source: T.B Sapkota et al./ Science of the Total Environment (2019)

The contract farming experience so far

Contract farming isn’t new to India. The practice was common for 25 crops and livestock through 100 different schemes across states as of 2016. Some companies engaged in contract farming are Mahindra, Satyam, ITC Limited, Rallis and PepsiCo. 

Despite its resource-intensive reputation, when combined with policies pushing for climate change adaptation methods, contract farming has been found to be beneficial to farmers, as seen in Ghana. Research from the US though has also found that contracts posed structural constraints when adopting mitigation practices in agriculture. 

The environmental cost needs to be accounted for

India is the second-largest user of fertilisers in the world, with urea accounting for 82% of the nitrogen consumption and di-ammonium phosphate for 63% of phosphate consumption. An FAO report notes that the country’s fertiliser consumption, covering mainly nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium inputs, increased from less than 1 million tonnes of total nutrients in the mid-1960s to almost 17 million tonnes in 2005. According to this independent estimate, India’s fertilizer demand stood at 61.4 million tonnes in 2020. India is now the largest producer of milk, fruits and pulses, with the largest population of buffaloes. It is the second-largest producer of wheat and rice.

Experts say that on the back of the government’s promise to increase farmers income, the current laws are in fact aimed to shift India’s export policy by increasing agricultural exports from $40 billion to $100 billion. But all this has, and will continue to, come at an environmental cost. 

In 2006-07 (the last year for which this estimate is available in the public domain), GHG emissions from fertiliser manufacture and use in India reached nearly 50 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, which represents about 3% of total Indian greenhouse gas emissions. 

Over the past two decades, India’s fertiliser use per hectare has grown by nearly 70%. The efficiency of fertiliser use in India is so poor that nearly 65%-75% of nitrogen applied to the soil is lost and only 30%-45% is useful resulting in severe negative externalities, Sapkota explains. 

Every quintal of nitrogen applied in farming emits 1.25 kg of nitrous oxide, the third-most influential GHG. Not only does it have 300 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide, it remains in the air for over 100 years. In India, about 78% of methane and nitrous oxide emissions are estimated to be from the agricultural sector. Nitrous oxide emitted from fertiliser use alone causes 26% of agri-related emissions

Sapkota says there are ways to increase the efficiency and crop output without increasing nitrogen use. However, Swain has found that firms motivate farmers to use more agro-chemicals to achieve higher yields compared to non-contracted farms, showing little concern for long-term soil health or water quality.

“Companies can always find newer lands to cultivate, leaving the farmers with neither profits nor arable land,” says Swain. While the recent farm laws mention that it will look to protect land and soil quality overtime, there is little in terms of provisions to back these pronouncements. 

A missed opportunity 

India has repeatedly reiterated that it is committed to reducing GHG emissions in the agricultural sector, and has floated several initiatives, soil testing labs, and policies to tackle this over the last decade. However, there has been nary a discussion on the impact the farm laws will have on GHG emissions. 

“The farm laws are a missed opportunity to talk about the environment and climate change,” Sinha says.  

Shah observed that not just the government, but civil society, too, isn’t demanding an amendment to address environmental consequences these laws might have. 

Eventually, Sapkota says, it is the governments and markets that can play a huge role in shifting to sustainable practices.

He gave the example of the high-yielding variety of paddy, which was pushed during the Green Revolution post-1960s. While it was necessary for India to focus on food security back then, there are several practices in paddy cultivation, which are now contributing to GHG emissions and it may be time to change. 

India’s rice production has increased so dramatically that it exported 9 million tonnes of rice in 2019-2020, and is set to double the export volume in 2021. 

Methane from rice production is a significant source of GHG emissions globally. India’s rice cultivation alone accounts for 52% of its total crop emissions. However, GHG emissions from agriculture could be slashed by 18% by 2030 through the adoption of mitigation measures

Sapkota says that methane emissions can be reduced significantly by changing water management through avoiding frequent flooding of fields for irrigation, efficient fertiliser use, and protecting soil moisture. 

This would require significant awareness creation, policy push and other enabling factors.  “Emission reductions are dependent not just on the farmer’s will but also on government policies, subsidies, technologies available to farmers, and market forces,” he concludes.

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