Techniques need change

Dryland Farming

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Notwithstanding that COP26 was largely seen as disappointing, the UN in one of its statement said ‘significant progress’ was made in both reducing the impact of climate change on the agriculture sector and lowering the sector’s contribution to global warming.Indeed, governments recognised that soil and nutrient management practices and the optimal use of nutrients lie at the core of climate-resilient, sustainable food production systems and can contribute to global food security. In this background, perhaps there is need to popularise concepts leading to wider use of dryland agriculture and possible experimentation in various crops.
Various studies carried out have warned that its the poor and impoverished who will be hit the hardest by climate change and it’s specifically true for communities who live in dryland areas, where water scarcity is a grave problem, forcing a reliance on dryland agriculture for their livelihood.
As is well known, dryland farming uses special agricultural techniques for the non-irrigated cultivation of crops and is used in low rainfall areas across the globe. Agriculture in drought prone areas with scarce water resources can be challenging, but issues can be tackled with dry farming methods. Dry farming is dependent on natural rainfall and is used by farmers to continually adapt to the presence or lack of moisture in a given crop cycle. In India, dryland agriculture occupies nearly 75% of cultivated area, supports 40% of the human and 60% of the livestock population, and produces 44% of food requirements.
Obviously, it will have to play a critical role in India’s food security. Dry farming may be divided into three categories based on the amount of rainfall received:one, dry farming in areas with less than 750 mm of rainfall per year; two, dryland farming in areas with rainfall exceeding 750 mm per yearand three rain-fed farming in regions with rainfall above 1,150 mm per annum.
Rainfed agriculture is dominant in the country with over 60% of the total cultivated area and supporting around 40% of India’s food demand of 1.6 billion people. According to latest data available, coarse cereals (87.5%), pulses (87.5%), oilseeds (77%), rice (48%) and cotton (66%) are predominantly grown in rainfed areas. But for the remaining 60% of the country’s food requirements, the contribution of drylands is, no doubt, crucial. In future, the significance of drylands in food security is expected to increase due to the growing population pressure and competition for land from non-agricultural uses. However, aberrant behavior of monsoon rainfall results in frequent droughts that impact resource poor farmers.
In the drylands of Asia and Africa crop production is presently plagued with various problems such as land degradation and low soil fertility, poor supply of agri inputs, weak technology dissemination system, low capacity of farmers etc. Moreover, the vulnerability of climate change has had devastating effects in certain parts of Asia, including India, and Africa. Thus, it is necessary to evolve climate change mitigation regions of the country so that food production does not suffer.
In view of the fact that about 84 districts in India are rain areas, 42% of the food grain, 75% of the oilseeds, 90% of the di-cot grams, sorghum and peanuts as well as 70% of cotton and more than 60% of the rice fields of the total agricultural production originate from dry and rain fed farming. This means a large chunk is able to provide for India’s food reus, dryland agriculture occupies nearly 70% of India’s cultivated area and produces 44% of food requirements. This means it will continue to play a critical role in India’s food security, both now and in the future.
Eroded and degraded soils with low water-holding capacity and multiple nutrient deficiencies, declining groundwater table, etc. contribute to low crop yields that lead to further land degradation. Managing land resources through a multidisciplinary approach in devising the most remunerative and environmentally appropriate land use has been the approach and strategy of the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture’s (CRIDA). It has characterised bio-physical and socio-economic resources, integrated watershed development, improvement of rainwater use efficiency, contingency crop planning, diversification of agriculture through livestock farming,
Thus technologies have to be made available to farmers which respond well to climate change effects and give greater resilience against shocks. Growing early (maturing) photo-insensitive high tillering with optimal root traits and tolerant to abiotic and biotic stresses; mulching with crop residues; planting more seedling per hill for heat stress; better soil nutrient and water management and lifesaving irrigation with stored rainwater for mid-season drought are a few strategies recommended by ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics) to cope with climate change and variability on dryland agriculture.
As dryland soils are low in organic matter, there should be more emphasis on improving soil organic matter status, which is an important driving force for biological activities in the soil, the source of food for flora and fauna.
Conservation agriculture, which consists of zero minimum tillage, soil cover through crop residues or cover crops and suitable rotations is being promoted in the country, though in a limited way, as another strategy for climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as sustainable crop production through soil and water conservation and other associated ecological benefits.
Crop diversification options by including crops, multi-purpose tree species, medicinal and aromatic plants etc. is being experimented in the country for quite a few years and there are expectations of positive benefits to the degraded agriculture to adapt to climate change and variability. It is recognised by experts that crop intensification and diversification with high-value crops have helped households achieve production of staples and surplus for modest incomes in model watersheds adopted by ICRISAT.
With technical support from the government, it is expected that dryland farming would spread to different parts of the country. This is imperative, more so due to the impending water crisis which may accentuate in the coming years.  From cereal grains to grain legumes to leafy vegetables, a variety of arable crops can be cultivated under dryland conditions. Also, root crops and some fruit vegetables are quite suitable for dryland farming in the near future.
Managing land resources through a multi-disciplinary approach in devising the most remunerative and environmentally appropriate land use has characterised the approach of Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture’s (CRIDA) for maximising crop productivity, profitability, and sustainability of dryland agriculture. Characterising bio-physical and socio-economic resources, integrated watershed development, improvement of rainwater use efficiency, contingency crop planning, diversification of agriculture through livestock farming, alternate land uses, integrated soil-nutrient-water-crop management, and efficient farm implements can ensure long-term sustainability of dryland agriculture in India.
This apart, there is need to evolve an institutional framework, improving credit availability and input supply systems, extension of crop insurance and launching of on-farm research-cum-pilot projects in farmers’ participatory mode. The focus needs to be sharp and a concerted effort to ensureinclusivity through knowledge sharing between decisions makers and farmers. — INFA