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The Business Standard, Mumbai, 04 Dec 2007
Emissions` solution
Surinder Sud
Agro-forestry can help sequester 10 per cent of the atmospheric carbon over the next 25 years.
While it has become the in thing to talk about how climate change is affecting or will affect agriculture, not much is said about what is being done to enable agriculture to withstand global warming or to use it for mitigating, if not averting, the impact of this menace. In fact, farm research and development organisations the world over have already begun treating this issue with the seriousness it merits. India, fortunately, is no exception and can, in some respects, even be included among the front runners.
As reported earlier in these columns, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has already launched a ‘Network Project on climate change’ involving some 15 research institutes and state agricultural universities for conducting critical research on crops, livestock and fisheries. Besides, climate change has been identified as a thrust area for research under the new National Agriculture Innovation Project (NAIP) which has replaced the National Agriculture Technology Project (NATP) on its conclusion.
The latest research and development (R&D) initiative on this front focuses on agro-forestry which can help in reversing climate change forces. For this, the ICAR has entered into an agreement with the International Centre for Research in Agro-forestry (ICRAF) for collaborative research on farm forestry aimed specifically at dealing with climate change issues. A four-year work plan prepared for this purpose is proposed to be executed in India with the involvement of over 50 agricultural R&D organisations.
Indeed, agro-forestry (combining trees and crops together or in sequence) is now being increasingly recognised globally as having substantial potential to serve as a carbon sink to reduce the load of harmful gases in the environment.
The basic objective of promoting agro-forestry is to extract more carbon dioxide, one of the chief environment-damaging gases, from the air and convert it into plant matter — a process technically called carbon sequestration. As such, the advantages of agro-forestry go beyond environment improvement, extending to the conservation of land and amelioration of soil health and its fertility even while keeping the land under agricultural production.
A report prepared by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has concluded that through agro-forestry and its associated activities, the agriculture sector can help tap and bury (sequester) about 10 per cent of the atmospheric carbon from the emissions caused by human activity over the next 25 years. In the process, it will also result in higher farm yields.
Significantly, the new collaborative agro-forestry project aims especially at developing environment-friendly technologies which small and resource-poor farmers can adopt. It will evolve novel agro-forestry systems which may require the introduction of new tree species, besides promotion of the known ones, having good potential for sucking in carbon dioxide. These systems, moreover, will have the capability to adapt to emerging conditions and mitigate the climate change process. The new plant species will, of course, be introduced after due diligence about their complementarity with agro-ecology and prevailing cultivation practices. This will be ensured by undertaking the complete life cycle analysis of the new agro-forestry systems before introducing them.
According to the ICAR deputy director general, A K Singh, the broad strategy would be to introduce fruits and spices in timber-based systems in the north-west; medicinal and spices in mango and tamarind-based systems in the south; medicinal plants in guava, aonla and mango-based systems in the east; and custard apple in parts of central India.
The project, notably, will also attempt to develop agronomic management and post-harvest techniques for the new systems. Besides, a knowledge base will be created on important tree species, their characteristics and applications. Not only that, it will also ensure the supply of high-quality planting material through improved nursery management practices.
Indeed, productive agro-forestry systems are deemed particularly useful for the north-east, especially for areas where “jhumming” (shifting cultivation) is still in vogue. For, this can help nomadic tribes, who cut forests to grow crops for a while before moving on to the new areas, to lead a settled life by adopting agro-forestry.
However, the outcome of this venture will depend largely on the level of adoption of research-based strategies by rural communities. The chances of success will, predictably, increase if these ventures can somehow be linked to carbon trading to generate some additional income to be passed on to the small stakeholders as an incentive for continuing with the new systems.


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