Climate debate can't ignore small farmers

In Perspective

The recently concluded United Nations meeting on climate change in Bangkok has missed the opportunity to evolve a consensus on the burning issue. As the deadline for Copenhagen summit is fast approaching, the developed and developing countries are locked in a deadlock over the fixing of targets for the emissions and financing of clean energy. Amidst this chaos, there are  encouraging reports of how farmers, especially the ones with small land holdings, can contribute substantially to address the issue of climate change.

Scientists from the developed countries have been alleging that farmers from developing countries are responsible for adding methane emissions, especially in cultivating food crops like paddy in Asian countries.

The world is aware of the fossil fuel guzzling lifestyles of the US and other developed countries, which do not want to give up these comforts. However, the most shocking revelation is the way the industrial farming in developed countries like the USA and Europe is responsible for contributing up to 40 per cent of the green house gas emissions.

The factory farming, driven by the profit motive of multinational agri business corporations, is polluting the soil, river and oceans with high amounts of nitrogen, pesticides and other fertilisers. The forms of nitrogen provided by chemical fertilisers are readily transformed in the soil, resulting in emission of nitrous oxides into the atmosphere. The scientific findings have confirmed that these nitrous oxides are 300 times more damaging than CO2 in contributing to green house gas emissions. Worst still is the fact that they destroy ozone layer.

Giant footprint
If these real time calculations of industrial farming are incorporated, the carbon footprint of USA, which is estimated to be 18 per cent, jumps to 30 percent. Obviously, the so-called ‘wealth’ created by the only super power is at the cost of damaging the fragile ecosystems of the Earth. Ironically, the developing countries are trying to imbibe this industrial agriculture as a way to resolve the crisis in the farming sector.

A recent study by Barcelona-based international organisation GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International) has done research to see how the farmers can contribute towards addressing the issue of climate change and mitigation. The findings show that the key component to mitigate the crisis in agriculture is to increase the soil organic matter (SOM). The living soils function through a mixture of substances that originate from decomposition of plant and animal material. In common language this is called farmyard manure used for millennia in Indian and Chinese agricultural systems. They have the capacity to absorb 100 times more water and nutrients to be released to the plants later.
The accumulation of organic matters in the soil is the key factor in lowering the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The sustainable agricultural systems that survived for thousands of years in the east were those, which were able to maintain the regular cycle of SOM in their soil. This was done with the integration of the farming system with livestock, forestry and green manure. Once this cycle was broken by adoption of industrial agriculture, it led to depletion of the SOM resulting in poor quality of food, diseased soil and adding emissions.

GRAIN has calculated that by adding organic matter into our agricultural soils, in next 50 years we could capture 45 billion tonnes of CO2, more than two thirds of the current excess of CO2 in the atmosphere.

But how and who are capable of fixing the SOM in the soil? The methodology for enhancing the organic matter needs to be based on decentralised animal husbandry that is integrated into diversified crop production. It is only the small farmers who have the capacity and willingness to work it out on the fields.

Fortunately, small and marginal farmers in numerous regions of India are specifically practicing this technique. Imagine the contribution of diversified cropping systems with millets, organic manure and livestock integrated together in several eco regions. These resource and knowledge rich farmers would be able to get some benefits from the business of carbon sequestration. Unfortunately, we stamp them as ‘primitive’ farmer who is not progressive enough into adopting fossil fuel based chemical agriculture.

This is a very positive case for the farming community world wide. Countries like India can take it to the logical end in the Copenhagen summit to press for policies to mitigate the crisis of climate change. But it is doubtful if our policy-makers would be willing to even consider this as a possible solution. Small farmers are ready to cool the Earth, but who cares?

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