Devsharan Patel, 53, a farmer in Dhatura, a village in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district, is on his way to his field. He carries a battery-operated pesticide sprayer on his shoulder. Farmers usually buy pesticides from the market, but Patel learnt to prepare a natural fertiliser, at no cost. On the way to his farm, he collected leaves of neem (Indian lilac), kaner (Nerium oleander), behya (bush morning glory) and akwan (Calotropis). After reaching the farm, he crushed the leaves and poured water, while pounding the leaves. He explained, “It does not cost anything to make it (the natural pesticide). You just have to put in some effort. This is poison for small caterpillars. I do not spray chemical fertilisers in my field, but make this natural fertiliser called jivamrit myself.”

He has also set up a rainwater harvesting system to conserve water. In a 20×15 feet pond located at the centre of his two-acre field, rainwater is collected. Crops such as tomato, wheat, gram and papaya are planted around this pond. “Rain or drought, I have kept the field ready for any eventuality,” Patel quipped.

Patel is one of the many farmers in the village of Dhatura, who have adopted innovative natural techniques to adapt to climate impacts. This trend caught on about five years ago, in 2017, when Dhatura was selected, along with many other villages, for the Climate Smart Village project initiated by the state government. The project was launched in three districts of Madhya Pradesh – Sehore, Satna and Rajgarh for a duration of five years.

Women carrying firewood pass through the fields in Maihar tehsil of Satna. Credit: Manish Chandra Mishra/Mongabay

The main objective of the project was to teach farmers innovative methods of natural farming and reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses emerging from agricultural activities. Another goal was to reduce the risk and impact of climate change with measures such as soil and water conservation and the cultivation of drought and flood-tolerant seeds.

According to the Climate Vulnerability Report prepared by the state government, these three districts are vulnerable to climatic changes. While Satna is high on the vulnerability scale, Rajgarh and Sehore are on the lower end. The projected climate risks for the state include an increase in maximum and minimum temperatures, vagaries of monsoon, increase in the frequency and intensity of rainfall, reduction in the number of rainy days, longer summers and an increase in drought and floods.

According to the state government data, agriculture contributes 16%-17% of greenhouse gas emissions in Madhya Pradesh. However, agriculture is also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Credit: Climate Vulnerability Report

Soil quality improves

Shamit Srivastava, a senior research fellow associated with the project in Satna, told Mongabay-India that as part of the project, farmers were given micro fertilisers and seeds that produce yields, even in adverse weather conditions. Mulching polythenes that cover the roots of the plants were also distributed among farmers to reduce water consumption. These bags reduce water evaporation.

“Adopting techniques like digging ponds in the fields, direct seeding of paddy, cultivation of pulses and soybeans in raised beds and composting instead of stubble burning have enabled farmers to withstand the vagaries of the weather,” Srivastava explained.

Traditional methods of farming such as use of cow dung manure and cow urine are also promoted as useful techniques. Farmers claim that these natural methods of farming not only reduce the cost but also increase the quality of soil and crop.

Farmer Devsharan Patel who does not employ chemical fertilisers said, “In just three years, the nature of soil in my farm has changed. It can now absorb more water, so the crop can be harvested even when the monsoon has been deficient.”

Sangeeta Lenka, a senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Soil Science, established under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, conducted tests on the soil after the commencement of the project. She backs Patel’s findings and said that the soil quality has improved in the fields of those farmers who have switched to newer methods of farming.

In July 2019, The Soil Institute of India had taken soil samples from the fields of many farmers in 20 villages of Satna. The baseline soil survey and lab results analysed by Lenka showed that the soil previously had low nitrogen and zinc. Also, phosphorus, sulphur, iron, and manganese were found to be deficient in some villages. However, after three years, the results of the soil tests have come positive.

Apart from Satna, soil testing was also done in the villages of Rajgarh and Sehore districts. After analysing the report, Lenka said, “A 34% increase in biological activity in the soil was observed in Rajgarh.”

The soil test revealed that the natural methods of cultivation had a positive impact on the surface layer (0-15 cm) of the soil and an increase in enzyme activities was also noticed. Levels of Dehydrogenase (14%) and alkaline phosphatase (18.2%) were found to be high as compared to earlier. Also, the basal soil respiration (24%), which is an indicator of improvement in soil quality, was also observed.

Costs versus profits

Patel’s family owns a 10-acre land. He decided to first practice natural farming on two acres. He said that in the natural way of farming, it costs him Rs 5,000-Rs 7,000 to prepare one acre for wheat, whereas it would cost Rs. 10,000-Rs 12,000 when he mixes chemical fertilisers and pesticides. He observes a marked improvement in the quality of crops grown in natural farming methods. “Also, the production has increased by 10% to 20%,” he noted.

“Our crops are good in quality. If our yield fetches a high price, then we can make a profit despite low production. But every crop fetches the same price in the market,” Patel added.

A farmer harvests organically grown tomatoes in Dhatura, Satna district, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Manish Chandra Mishra/Mongabay

Ramsharan Yadav, 58, a farmer from Pakaria, about 35 km from Dhatura adopted natural farming three years ago. He said that there was a decrease in the yield in the first two years, but now his yield is promising. “Farmers end up spending a lot. If these techniques are bringing down the cost, then losses in the case of crop failure due to weather changes would also be less,” said Yadav.

He added, “I was provided with heat-tolerant seeds. My crop did not get damaged even with less rain. I am getting a good produce of turmeric for the past two years, that too without the use of fertilizers and pesticides. So far, this technology has paid off.”

When Lenka analysed the production data, she found that there has been an increase in the yield in these districts. The farmers are also happy with an average 30% increase in the yield. In some places, the yield has increased by 43%.

However, not getting the right market for the produce still remains a problem for the farmers. Devsharan Patel said, “Though there has been an improvement in the quality of the crop, we get the same price for our produce. Currently, no one in the local market is in a position to pay us more for our organic crops.”

Carbon sequestration

Environment Planning and Coordination Organization, a Bhopal-based government organisation, played an important role in launching the Climate-Smart Villages project in Madhya Pradesh. Lokendra Thakkar, a senior scientist and Environment Planning and Coordination Organization coordinator, told Mongabay-India, “Climate change impacts cities as well as villages. Agriculture plays a major role in the rural economy. The aim of this project is to make agriculture climate-friendly by reducing carbon emissions and changing farming methods.”

The Climate-Smart Villages project was launched in the Sehore, Satna and Rajgarh districts of Madhya Pradesh in 2017. Credit: Manish Chandra Mishra/Mongabay

He added, “It has been observed that farmers use a lot of nitrogen fertilizers (urea) in the fields. It emits nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, which is 300 times more responsible for global warming than carbon. Under this project, farmers have been motivated to adopt natural methods of farming instead of using chemical fertilizers.”

In Madhya Pradesh, agriculture contributes 16%-17% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the state government data. Through this project, farmers are being aware of this data. According to a report by the Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment, agriculture and animal husbandry together account for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions in India.

Thakkar elaborated, “Under this project, a solution has also been found for stubble burning through crop residue management. Farmers are now using crop residue as manure in the field.” The project also plans to sequester carbon in the soil. Improving the quality of the soil accelerates the rate of absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Lenka, who studied the soil quality improvement, also found from the samples collected, that the fields where farming is being done naturally have more organic carbon in the soil. “Adoption of climate-smart farming practices has shown that there has been an increase in organic carbon and dehydrogenase activity in the soil by an average of 10.7% to 11.5%,” she said.

The test results showed that soil collected from Rajgarh showed the highest organic carbon content of up to 20%. A 30% increase in yield and a 15.7% increase in soil nutrients was also recorded. In Sehore district, an increase of seven percent in the amount of Soil Organic Carbon was found in 15 cm of soil.

With estimated annual emissions of about 2.6 gigatonnes per year, after China and the US, India is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. The government of India is committed to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 and reach net zero by 2070.

Carbon sinks

According to the 2022 NITI Aayog report, 20% of India’s total carbon emissions come from agricultural activities. With 97 metric tonnes per annum (mtpa) emissions, Madhya Pradesh ranks fourth in the country in terms of carbon emissions.

By 2030, India, under the National Determined Contribution signed under the Paris Agreement, is committed to creating an additional carbon sink equivalent to 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon through additional forest and tree cover.

Under climate-smart agriculture, the extra carbon that is stored in the soil by changing the way of farming has also become a carbon sink. According to Lenka, it’s important that carbon stays in the soil for a long time. If farmers leave natural farming midway and switch back to chemical farming, carbon will be released from the soil and reach the atmosphere,” she added.

The Climate-Smart Villages project in Madhya Pradesh concluded in 2022. But the farmers opine that the project should be reintroduced. “We had just started reaping benefits of this project when it was discontinued. It should have continued for a few more years,” farmer Devsharan Patel said.

Thakkar, however, said that “Climate-Smart Villages” was a pilot project. He opined that with the learning and success gained from this, a bigger project, that covers the entire state, can be launched.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.