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Organic Farming for Climate Action: Opportunities and Challenges


Authors: Sheetal Gehlot

Energy Review, Vol 5. Issue 01. 2023

Agriculture, as we know, is a substantial contributor and a victim of climate change. Conventional farming methods are the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, with around 38 per cent of emissions coming from the soil. The contemporarily discussed practice of organic farming comes as an effective alternative at this juncture for its proven benefits on soil conservation and health and energy-efficient consumption. It has roots since ancient times, and the discussion in the current context stems from ideas propagating its resurgence. As per the Food and Agricultural Organisation, “organic agriculture is a unique production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity, and this accomplished by using on-farm agronomic, biological and mechanical methods in exclusion of all synthetic off-farm inputs”. Quality of food and enhanced environmental and climate awareness are the prime concerns that have thrust into discussions and implementations on organic farming. This article will present a comprehensive report on organic farming traversing around its main principles, benefits, opportunities, and emerging challenges in the short and long term, and will argue why an organic revolution is crucial for energy transition and climate action

The resurgence of the idea of organic farming revolves around four basic principles, those are, health, ecology, sustainability, and care, as propounded by the father of organic farming in India, Subhash Palekar during his extensive research on the issue. The characteristics of organic farming such as food quality and consequently human well-being, maintaining a natural balance of soil health, the natural balance between food availability and environmental impacts, prevention of damage due to chemical-based farming and optimum utilisation of resources with their natural recycling encapsulate all four principles. The need for organic farming emerged as a response to the realisation that the green revolution with intensive input use resulting in higher yields and grain production aided by chemicals like fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides etc. have reduced the soil fertility and led to severe environmental consequences like the loss of topsoil, loss of genetic diversity and surface and groundwater contamination. Thus, the high cost of these intensive and extensive agricultural practices must be reduced by returning to natural and scientific methods that will help in regaining fertility and maintaining the natural balance of soil biological diversity for sustainable agriculture. One among many solutions to this is provided by organic farming through the calculative application of organic alternatives to chemical inputs.

Besides the soil and crop quality improvements due to organic farming, studies have also observed climate benefits such as reduced fossil-fuel consumption and thereby the net impact on cutting down greenhouse gas emissions. Important elements of organic farming that involve the calculative application of natural inputs are nutrient management, use of bacterial and fungal biofertilizers, weed management, insect pest management and other disease control. All of these factors in a way impact the soil that is vulnerable to climate change. Using bio-fertilisers and other organic options will result in higher carbon content in the soil and a reduction in nitrous oxide emissions.

Studies have estimated that adopting organic farming practices can improve the absorption of carbon by the soil, thereby reducing the emissions from the farming sector. Soil carbon sequestration, that is, the soil acting as a carbon sink is not only crucial in climate mitigation but can also have various co-benefits. One of four principles of organic farming, i.e., ecology involves nutrient management in the soil so that it becomes fertile enough to supply nutrients that plants need. These organic sources not only provide various nutrients to the soil but also aids in weed control and enhance organic matter in the soil to feed microorganisms. Along with this nutrient management also ensures the principle of sustainability as high organic matter resists soil erosion, increases water retention capability of soil, and hence requires less irrigation. Methods used for nutrient management are green manuring, use of biofertilizers, vermicompost etc. Bacterial and biofertilizers again aids in nutrient management and diminish the need to use chemical inputs like fertilisers. They enrich soil through natural recycling and thus ensure the principle of sustainability, health, and ecological balance. Some examples of biofertilizers can be understood as follows. Use of Rhizobium, the N2 fixing bacteria for legume crops, azospirillum for enhancing the growth of plants like sunflower, carrot, tomato, and cotton. Phosphorus solubilizing bacteria (PSB) ensures availability of phosphorus, a very vital nutrient next to nitrogen. It also helps in increasing crop yields. The use of Mycorrhizal fungi increases tolerance of heavy metal contamination and drought. Blue Green algae the pioneer colonisers, have been found to be beneficial in saving around 30kg N/Ha, depending upon agroecological conditions. Thus, the cumulative and calculative application of these biofertilizers manages the ecological balance of soil, ensures soil fertility and with consistent application reverses the damages that have already been done.

In organic farming, weedicides are not applied and hence weed management takes place through manual practices like tillage, flooding, mulching etc. Along with this the biological method which is pathogen based is simultaneously used for managing loss done due to weeds. In organic farming pest management takes place through prior anticipation of the presence of pests and accordingly planting schedules are determined. The foremost strategy involves combating harmful pests by building up a population of beneficial insects, whose larvae feed off the eggs of pests. Cumulative use of the above techniques consequently helps in disease control. As per the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM), the proper fertility management of crops through an adequate supply of macro and micro nutrients along with the adoption of crop rotation techniques leads to improvement in crop resistance to various diseases. Thus, one of the biggest rewards that organic agriculture can provide is healthy and fertile soil alive with beneficial organisms.

However, the adoption of the idea of organic farming is not free from challenges and certain limitations of organic farming that could emerge as challenges during application are listed as follows. Organic manure requirement is huge as nutrient content is low, which can make it a more costly and hard handling method. Data has not supported high yields in organic farming, and thus its application at a larger scale can lead to a trade-off between food security and environmental sustainability. Information dissemination amongst farmers in the context of organic farming is low, and marketing facilities are also not fully streamlined to provide inertia to this idea. Thus, as future strategy greater research and a larger consensus is required, hand-holding approach for farmers and policy support along with targeting of low-hanging fruits in terms of relatively organic lands can help in getting good results in this direction.

(Ms. Sheetal Gehlot is an Assistant Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (Economics Department), KR Mangalam University, Sohna Road, Haryana.) ■□■


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