A farmer standing in front of a rice paddy full of water.

Lessons in sustainability from India’s past: Changing the nature of agricultural practices

The agricultural sector occupies a significant place in India’s economy, contributing 15 percent of the country’s GDP and employing 47 percent of its labor. It is also extremely sensitive to climate change, with estimates suggesting that climate shifts have already cost India 1.5 percent of its GDP.

Unfortunately,  agriculture itself is also a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions itself due to the practices that drive it. Indiscriminate land clearing, consumption of fossil fuels in mechanised equipment and the raising of livestock all contribute substantial GHG emissions. The industry is also suffering in other ways: more and more land lies fallow due to overuse of chemical fertilizers. Because of these challenges, natural farming has been gaining ground as farmers try to re-embrace time-tested techniques that the modern world has forgotten.

“Black gold” and polyculture

In the city and peri-urban spaces, piles of leaves, kitchen scraps and other organic materials do not receive the respect they deserve. Perceived as waste, these resources are dumped in landfills or burned, adding to the cocktail of emissions already present in the atmosphere. In the home-gardens of Sri Lanka and Southern India, however, organic material is held in high regard. Here, it is commonly referred to as “black gold.” Homeowners and farmers in these regions use it encourage the growth of a diverse range of vegetation from sandal, teak, coconut and rubber to flowering plants, pepper vines, paddy and vegetables. For them, rather than focusing on monoculture, they use single irrigation on a section of land to cultivate a variety of crops.

In a system like this, mulch from the trees fertilises the plants below while the trees themselves provide shade. Mulching is a well known technique for water conservation that enables better resource use in areas which are water stressed. Furthermore, adding plants such as crown flower and neem to the mix ensures a degree of pest control. In coastal areas, agro-ecosystems comprised of mixed trees and shrubs are grown as vegetative barriers against wind and sand movement. Species are selected based on a number of parameters such as their popularity, stress tolerance, ability to be used as fuel or fodder, etc. The home-gardens of Sri Lanka are, in fact, dynamic sustainable food production systems, which have continued to evolve across generations within the landscape to suit the local socio-economic, cultural and ecological needs. Recent research has also found that the increased landscape heterogeneity of these types of ecosystems can support substantial biodiversity.


Small plants spring from a homemade garden box.

“Waste” can be a valuable resource for developing a more resilient urban food system.


Mixed-use farms overcome toxic salinity

In the southwest coast of one of the southern most states of India lies the Kuttanad region an area which is spread across the districts of Alappuzha and Ernakulam of Kerala. A large part of the region is 0.6 to 2m below sea level, having been reclaimed from the Vembanad Lake. Here Pokkali, a highly salt-resistant form of rice, is sown with traditional methods. Marshy tidal swamps formed as a result of flooding and tidal intrusions provide an excellent substrate for this special variety of rice. Although the soil here is highly acidic and generally unfriendly to most varieties of paddy, the traditional method of mixing salt and rainwater has allowed for the cultivation of Pokkali rice for years. The secret is in alternating the production of paddy with that of prawns. In Goa and Maharashtra, which have their own brand of Pokkali fields called Khazan lands and Khar respectively, a number of fish species are rotated with the paddy instead. When the harvest is done, the prawns or fish feed on the left-overs from the harvest and re-fertilize the substrate for the next crop of Pokkali.

In these environments, farmers only harvest one crop of rice and farm prawns for the remainder of the season. The paddy is grown during the low saline conditions (i.e. when the monsoons arrive) and the prawns are cultured during the high saline period. This practice is ecologically sound, and an excellent example of natural farming. The fields act as reservoirs for the excess water during heavy rains while also providing a safe source of food and livelihood that operates in sync with natural cycles. ICLEI South Asia’s INTERACT-Bio project is investigating how effective these areas are in promoting biodiversity conservation as well as securing livelihoods within the cities of Kochi and Panaji.

A rice paddy full of water.

Pokkali rice thrives where other varieties of rice cannot, and is sustained by nature-based nutrient cycling system.

Mitigating water stress with traditional techniques

In Nagaland, a local water conservation strategy called Zabo or Ruza combines techniques of water conservation with forestry, agriculture and animal care. Rainwater from forested hilltops collects into channels that lead to pond-like structures created on the terraced hillsides. The channels also pass through cattle yards, collecting the dung and urine of animals, before ultimately snaking their way into paddy fields at the foot of the hill. Ponds created in the paddy field are then used to rear fish and grow medicinal plants.

Another water optimisation practice common in the northeast (Khasi and Jaintia hills) is the Bamboo Drip Irrigation System. The system, made up of set of variously sized and diameter bamboo pipes, diverts water from perennial springs to the terrace fields. The roots of the cultivars (black pepper) receive small drops of water directly which meet their daily requirement in small volumes. A different techniques involves ploughing crop residue back into the field to recycle nutrients and conserve moisture. This works by increasing water infiltration, cooling the soil surface and preventing erosion of the topsoil.

Many farmers have also recognized the significance of green water (soil moisture stored by plants) in agriculture as a means to avoid over-irrigation of crops and use water more efficiently. Techniques like mulching and raised bed farming allow for moisture retention, for example. Crop rotation with legumes, meanwhile, improves the nitrogen content of the soil and some species such as black gram can be grown in the moisture left over after rice paddies are harvested. Crop rotation also reduces soil erosion, acts as a disease and weed break and brings biological diversity back into the soil.

Advances are also being made beyond the traditional fields. As rooftop gardens, community gardens, and vertical planting become more common the dynamics of food production are rapidly changing, especially in urban and peri-urban spaces. Developing urban and peri-urban agriculture results not only in heightened food security but also a certain degree of climate resilience, improved biodiversity and a greater sense of community. This makes peri-urban agriculture just as important as traditional agriculture for platforms such as ACCCRN, ESPA and IKI, which ICLEI South Asia uses to build solutions and disseminates knowledge within and among city governments.

Surprisingly to some, many of the best agricultural solutions in both the rural and peri-urban spaces rely on the knowledge and techniques of traditional farmers. To take the example of Pokkali, traditional methods have been able to tackle the extremely difficult problem of high and variable salinity for years. Instead of discarding this knowledge in favor of “modern” technologies, it may prove valuable to use technology to improve the existing methods.

This is why it is so valuable to document and – where it works well – mainstream traditional knowledge, as it often serves as a foundation for nature-based solutions. Such solutions can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions traditionally associated with agriculture, and, if scaled up, enable the development of healthier cities for a healthier planet.