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Cultivating Tomorrow: Scaling Climate-Smart Agriculture, the Start-up Way

An emerging opportunity for agri-tech startups lies in developing tools, technologies and markets to bring back circularity in agriculture using carbon as a currency.

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My first exposure to the crisis of sustainability was thanks to the short film - ‘The Story of Stuff’ in 2007. The simple message from the film was - you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet, indefinitely. It speaks of “stuff” - the production and disposal cycles of consumer products that have become a significant part of our lives in the last 100 years. Since then, the vision for a sustainable planet has garnered attention and the concept of a circular economy is catching on among producers in the manufacturing sector. However, a different value chain that nature has designed to be circular regressed several fold in the quest to feed a growing planet, and that is the cycle of food-to-waste - an integral system of agriculture and livestock that has nourished and sustained life on this planet for several millennia.  

Over the past 3 decades, farming and livestock have deviated from their natural circularity and grown apart to separate linear systems resulting in each becoming a huge driver of climate change. On one hand, artificial fertilizer and other farm inputs are resulting in saturation of chemical content and degradation of soil, and unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases like nitrogen oxide. On the other hand, human-influenced changes to the diet for livestock and industrial management of animal waste has resulted in off the chart methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide emissions putting life on the planet at risk. 

An urgent need for climate-smart agriculture

India is extremely vulnerable to climate change. 70% of rural households depend on agriculture, 86% of farmers have land holdings less than 2 acres, 48% of food crops and 68% of non-food crops are rain dependent, and 65% of irrigated crops rely on groundwater. Given rising temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, depleting ground water and land degradation on one side, and a predominantly rural, agrarian and rain dependent economy on the other, climate change adds an additional layer of complexity to India’s development challenge. The Economic Survey 2017-18 forecasts a 15 to 18% decrease in agricultural income on average, potentially 20 to 25% in unirrigated areas.

How do we protect, supplement or expand agricultural livelihoods to mitigate vulnerability? There is an urgent need to rally a strong alignment around a set of sustainable agricultural practices that reverse the deterioration of agricultural land, improve the health of the population, protect the environment, and also adapt to changing climate. In other words, climate smart agriculture. 

Climate smart agriculture, as per the FAO, refers to transforming and reorienting agricultural systems to effectively support development and ensure food security in the face of rapidly changing climate. While many solutions emerge in pockets from time to time, adoption of best practices at scale has eluded. Influencing behavior change at scale is a worthy challenge that can be solved, the startup way.  

What can startups do

Climate-smart agriculture is a greenfield for innovation at the intersection of farming practices, digital technologies and life sciences. The broad areas for game-changing transformations are

  • Conservation: Agriculture practices that help farmers to protect soil (e.g. zero tillage), conserve biodiversity and reduce the amount of inputs such as fertiliser, water etc. For example, a project in two districts in Maharashtra piloted the Saguna Rice Technique launched in 2019 with 20 farmers who are implementing no-till, no-puddle rice cultivation on half acre plots, led by a progressive farmer and an environmental scientist. Technology like GPS, remote sensing and data collection on soil conditions, combined with precision tools can minimise use of fertilizer, pesticide and water without compromising yield. 
  • Changes in cropping patterns: We need a gradual shift from resource intensive cash crops, and diversify into agroforestry options that improve farmers’ own food security and supplement income through tree and horticultural produce. This includes switching to stress resistant cultivars that are flood, drought, pest resistant, including native varieties of grains, pulses and other foods that are naturally more suited to a region
  • Circularity: The simple principle of circularity, combining farming and livestock management is to establish the cyclical nature of food and waste. Nutrient recycling through composting and waste bio-digesters  are a source of affordable nitrogen fertilizer. Startups like Energy Harvest have also enabled farmers to convert straw waste to fuel and obtain an additional revenue stream. 

Innovators can create significant impact in supporting the transformation and reorientation of agriculture, and generating sustainable income at the farmer level by leading behavioral change, solving for access and providing tools and technology. 

The Carbon income opportunity

India has a number of large scale afforestation projects with a carbon trading component based on carbon sequestration in trees. These have mostly been government led, community level, and focused on restoring degraded land, e.g. UP State Forest Department initiatives, Himachal MHWDP in collaboration with World Bank. Verra, a global certification firm, has released a new Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) methodology that enables farmers and livestock owners to access new revenue streams from “farming carbon” through land use practices. 

Carbon trading requires significant effort in designing projects that meet standards set by a recognized third party, periodic verification of carbon sinks created, and access to voluntary carbon markets. There are examples of local success, but the high cost (of support services) per beneficiary can become viable only at a critical scale. This is a great problem to solve, the startup way. 

Implementation of climate smart agriculture not only improves yields, lowers costs and derisks agriculture, it also mitigates greenhouse gas emissions from cultivation techniques and inappropriate fertilizer use on one hand, and increases carbon sequestration through improved soil quality and crop cover. It is estimated that increasing the carbon content of soil by 0.4% globally can reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 3-4 gigatons, while enhancing crop yield by 1.3%. We owe it - not to a future generation in the distant future - but to ourselves to take the necessary steps to mitigate the risks of climate change and ensure food security for a growing population without hitting the limits of a finite planet. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
Cultivation carbon emissions agriculture

Sudha Srinivasan

CEO, The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation

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