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[BANGALORE] Conservation agriculture may be the answer to pressures from development and climate change on the vast Indo-Gangetic plain, India’s food bowl, according to a new study by agricultural scientists.

Published last month (August) in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture, the study finds that conservation agriculture (CA) practices can boost yields at substantially lower production costs and water usage. CA may involve choosing crop varieties that quickly adapt to changing climate and emit lesser quantities of greenhouse gases (GhGs).  

The Indo-Gangetic plain, extending over 2.5 million square kilometres, produces food for about 40 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion population. These plains are under tremendous stress owing to rapid urbanisation, poverty, and climate change. Earlier studies indicate that with a temperature rise of one degree Celsius, the demand for irrigation water may increase by 10 per cent.

“CA is a management practice revolving around three principles: minimum soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and appropriate crop rotation,” says Tek B. Sapkota, associate scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, New Delhi, and lead author of the study.

Sapkota and his team found that CA could provide better methods of farming wheat and rice in the Indo-Gangetic plains. CA could reduce production costs by up to 23 per cent without compromising on the yield and improve irrigation water productivity by 66—100 per cent as compared to traditional production systems. It could also reduce GhG emissions by 10—15 per cent.

Embracing CA may present a high learning curve for the traditional farmer because the methods are knowledge intensive. “Seeding at right depth, at right soil moisture and using the right machinery is important. Fertilizer management during the early years of conversion (from traditional systems to conservation agriculture) is also very critical,” says Sapkota.

However, as the study shows, learning these practices can be rewarding.

“The study provides a comprehensive analysis of CA-based practices in terms of food production and climate change adaptation and mitigation,” says Olaf Erenstein, director of the socio-economics programme at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, Mexico. According to him, such practices are scalable enough to feed a growing population like India's, “but may need adaptation to the diverse contexts and circumstances farmers face”.

>Link to article in Journal of Integrative Agriculture

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.