Over time, Indian farms have become smaller, and so has the income farmers can draw from their farms. As per Agriculture Census 2015-16, the average operational farm size declined to 1.08 hectares in 2015-16 compared with 2.28 hectares in 1970-71.
While merely 0.57 per cent of farmers own more than 10 hectares of land, most (86 per cent) are small and marginal landholders who own less than 2 hectares.
To make a living from such small fields, farmers are forced to follow practices that only keep near-term perspective in mind, like over-application of fertilisers, burning of leftover crop stubble, etc., which leads to water and air pollution, besides degrading the soil. As a result, agriculture is a significant contributor to GHG emissions in India.
By adopting good farming practices, agriculture can become a part of the solution by sequestering carbon and lowering emissions. However, India needs to find sustainable agricultural practices that are easy to adopt and reward its smallholder farmers for switching to these farming models.
The ecosystem of carbon credits is designed to reward activities that help reverse the effects of GHG emissions. These activities can either reduce emissions (for example, shifting towards renewable energy) or sequester carbon (for example, reforesting barren lands).
After successfully deploying such an activity, certification agencies can verify them and issue carbon credits equivalent to the amount of environmental benefit generated. These carbon credits can be traded for carbon offsets, and other entities can buy them to offset their own carbon footprints.
In agriculture, for example, when a farmer decomposes the leftover crop stubble instead of burning it, or when he uses an alternate wet and dry method (AWD) or direct seeding of rice (DSR) for his paddy crops or reduces his chemical usage with precision farming — all such activities lower GHG emissions and have the potential to generate carbon credits.
With the world’s second-largest arable area, there is an immense opportunity to bring carbon credit-based benefits to Indian farmers. In addition to the monetary incentive, such a model has many other benefits, such as water conservation, preservation of biodiversity, soil health improvement, reduction of water and air pollution and job creation at the rural level.
However, there are many bottlenecks to overcome before we can bring these benefits to a smallholding farmer. One of the foremost challenges to obtaining a carbon-credit-based rewards system for agriculture comes primarily from the verification protocol itself.
For a carbon credit to be issued, third-party verifications need to be done, and the overhead of producing proof for every small unit of land becomes prohibitively high for the verifying agency.
As their farms are small and with little exposure to technology, the farmers too find it challenging to generate and document proof of the sustainable practices they follow necessary to be rewarded with carbon credits.
Bringing farms, farmers online
Technology is playing a significant role in bridging this gap, and the first step towards this comes from the digitisation of farms and farming practices.
The proof points needed by the carbon credit verifying agency often require documenting the whole life cycle of the crops, ranging from geofencing the farm to tracking what practices were followed during land preparation, crop care and so on. It is nearly impossible to keep track of this manually, but a mobile application interface that assists the farmers throughout the cropping cycle can seamlessly collect such proof points.
Secondly, using technology and leveraging remote sensing makes monitoring and validating proof points possible for many sustainable activities. It also helps eliminate discrepancies in data because each farm is tagged to unique coordinates on the map, and this data is independently verifiable.
Furthermore, real-time monitoring makes it possible to generate timely guidance to farmers about the practices they need to follow. Such timely interventions through mobile apps help connect with farmers, troubleshoot any issues they face, and retain the proof of the continuance of sustainable practices.
This immensely helps set up a process for validating the prevented emissions, especially in front of a carbon credits verification agency. Field conditions over regular periods, along with details on date, time, location, and geo-tagged pictures of the field, all help generate documentary evidence that can be verified at any point in time.
By easing up the challenges of setting up carbon-credit-based models, farmers are empowered to make better choices for their farms and their incomes. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, more than 50,000 farmers across 1,20,000 acres practised alternate wetting and drying for their paddy crop, tracking their work via a mobile app. Its benefits included 15 per cent to 30 per cent of water savings.
The process generated digital proof points enabling these farmers to compound their work into a project eligible for carbon credits. For the stubble burning farmers of northern India, a Crop Residue Management (CRM) Program was run wherein the leftover crop stubble was sprayed with PUSA bio-decomposer.
The CRM Program empowered over 25,000 farmers to prevent 4,20,000 acres of farmland from being burnt, thereby preventing the generation of 2,135 tonnes of particulate matter, including PM 2.5 and PM 10.
Given that the programme was monitored using geofencing and remote sensing, these farmers were also able to create and document proof points required to apply for carbon credits generated by the avoidance of crop stubble burning.
If these models are replicated across other paddy growing/ stubble burning regions of India, the country can be a leading example in devising a method that brings carbon-economy-based rewards to the farmers for following sustainable practices. Such sustainable practices help reduce pollution, improve soil health, promote biodiversity and at the same time, help farmers earn more. This can be a great win-win for the people and the planet.
The author is CTO, nurture.farm