Using Agroforestry to Address Issues Plaguing Indian Soils and Farmers
The issues plaguing Indian agriculture
Like many other countries, India is at a crossroads – in more ways than one.
Back in August 2021, the government estimated that India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracted by 7.3 percent in a COVID-hit 2020-2021 financial year.
Added to the mix is the balancing act the government has to manage with climate change and its resulting impact on people, of which there is a mounting body of evidence.
“Climate change is already slowing the pace of poverty reduction and increasing inequality in India,” according to a report by the Overseas Development Institute.
India may lose between three to 10 percent of its GDP annually by 2100 due to climate change, according to the report titled “The Cost of Climate Change in India.”
Another 2019 study by Stanford University showed that India’s economy is 31 percent smaller than it would have been in the absence of global warming.
Further complicating things is the soil crisis India faces, which is linked to both agricultural and economic output. This is because India is a largely agrarian society; with about 58 percent of the population relying on agriculture as a source of income. Farmers, in particular, are at the forefront of climate and economic risks. In north Indian states such as Haryana and Punjab, crop yields will decline by 15 to 17 percent for every two degrees centigrade of temperature increase.
About 120 million hectares out of 350 million hectares of the country’s soil is already classified as ‘problematic’ as it has either turned acidic, alkaline or saline.
Healthy soil is made up of three major nutrients – phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen. This, along with organic matter levels in soil, impacts the quality of food grown. According to the government’s 2019-20 Soil Health Survey, 55 percent of soil is deficient in nitrogen, while 42 percent is deficient in phosphorus and 44 percent in organic carbon.
Indian farmers have historically used chemical fertilisers to make up for nutrient deficiencies. This was especially prevalent in the Green Revolution that started in the 1960s, with the aim of using modern farming methods – like mechanisation and fertiliser use – to produce more food; ultimately to alleviate hunger and poverty.
But this came at a cost, one of which was soil and water pollution. Nitrogen pollution in surface and groundwater has reached “alarming levels,” according to a 2019 report by the Centre for Science and Environment. Yet, moving away from chemical agriculture is not something likely in the near future, given existing nutrient deficiencies in Indian soil.
Another unintended consequence of intensive agriculture is soil erosion – the loss of topsoil because of water, wind or tillage. Annual rates of soil loss in India are about 15 tonnes per hectare, according to the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS). This is higher than sustainable rates, which stand at around five to 12 tonnes per hectare, impacting both crop productivity and water quality, as eroded soil seeps into water reservoirs.
One solution to the country’s soil issue is agroforestry – the inclusion of trees and shrubs into farming practices. In 2014, the Indian government became the first to launch a National Agroforestry Policy, with the aim of improving farmers’ livelihoods and mitigating climate change. Agroforestry is also key to the government’s climate commitments to have around 33 percent of tree cover by 2030. In 2021, this number stood at about 25 percent.
Agroforestry in Punjab and Haryana
Since 2011, Earthworm Foundation have been working with farmers in Haryana and Punjab to plant Sheesham trees in farms. The aim of this agroforestry project is to increase tree cover, improve farmers’ income and, in turn, improve the health of soils; especially in areas like Punjab that tend toward the lower end of the forest cover spectrum.
Every year for the past 11 years, about 200 farmers were educated about the importance of the Sheesham tree, and were helped in implementing a Sheesham-based agroforestry model with a scientific approach and on-field guidance.
“The project educates the community on a range of factors that can impact soil health such as deforestation, poor industrial waste management, overgrazing by cattle, and inappropriate agricultural practices such as excessive tillage, frequent cropping, poor irrigation and water management,” said Earthworm’s Ramchandra Phadke.
To date, about 2,400 farmers – across 269 villages and close to 13,000 hectares of land – are involved in the project. Encouraging agroforestry among farming communities is central to the project, as it is key to enhancing organic carbon and nutrient levels in soil.
“Punjab and Haryana are agrarian states, where marginalised groups like Dalits and women own very little land and don’t have equal access to food, healthcare and education,” said Bini Philips, head of Earthworm’s operations in India. “While so far our project has focused on large to marginal landholders, going forward we'd like to reach the communities on the fringes in these regions.”
Analysing the health of the soil and farmers
Punjab and Haryana states are also known for their mono-cropping planting patterns and excessive chemical and pesticide use, Philips said. While the focus of the project was on planting Sheesham trees, soil health is becoming an apparent and central part of the project. As such, soil health tests were performed last year near Sheesham trees.
Two techniques were used to test the soil. One was a VESS test to visually evaluate the soil structure, based on appearance and feel. The other was a laboratory test to analyse chemical properties and nutrients in the soil.
The tests showed a correlation between soil health and Sheesham trees, said Earthworm’s Ramchandra Phadke. For example, most samples tested near Sheesham trees had higher organic carbon content compared to samples further away from trees.
“Soil quality was better in Haryana, as compared to Punjab, where soil quality in most tested plots were found lacking,” Phadke said.
This means that farming practices like excessive use of chemicals and heavy tillage have deteriorated soil health, he said. This is consistent with findings from the Punjab government, which show that 39 percent of the state's soil is completely degraded.
A holistic approach is required to address these issues, Philips said.
“True change can only happen if many stakeholders work towards the same goal – improving soil health and farmers’ lives,” she said.
To do this, the team aims to add more tree and plant species to the existing agroforestry model, as well as linking them to better extension services and coaching, and regular soil and water tests.
Another key component is improving farmer income, as this affects the long-term viability of the project, she said.
“We want to partner with CSO’s, agricultural universities, local government bodies and scientific community to equip farmers with information, as well as local market trends,” Philips said.