Soil - the climate problem that COP forgot

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Danny Chivers looks at an important Indian farming project that takes carbon from the air – and increases amounts of crops for farmers.


Farmers in Andara Pradesh, India are leaders in improving soil and increasing the amount of crops. JAKE LYELL/ALAMY

The recent climate agreement in Glasgow did not talk about farming or soils once. Vijay Kumar Thallam believes this is a big problem. Thallam is one of the leading world supporters of agroecology. He is leading a great project in Andhra Pradesh, India. Since 2016, its government has been supporting its six million farmers to make changes to a fully natural, chemical-free farming system, called ‘community-managed natural farming’.

Thallam is head of the Natural Farming Mission in the Andhra Pradesh government. His work has already helped more than 750,000 farmers and farm workers to change the way they farm. This number will be over a million in 2022. The new methods give farmers more crops, and also use less nitrogen from fertilizer, and take carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil.

How did he do it? With payments or incentives? No – it was the farmers who wanted to do it. This is what Thallam said:

‘2015 was a very difficult year: bad drought, and then very heavy rains. Farmers had to pay a lot of money for chemicals, and there was more risk of losing the crops from droughts and floods because of climate change.

‘I wanted to solve the more basic problems. These people are feeding us, and they need a fair system – not problems with debt, poverty and more suicide.

‘There were already groups eg. of women farmers, who were working on these problems,’ he explains. ‘We gave them the research and information they needed to move to more traditional, natural methods – supported by the latest science – that could mean no chemicals, less costs and improved soil.’

After a year or two, when the soil had recovered, the farmers produced the same amount of crops, or more, than with chemical farming.

When farmers saw the benefits they started to tell others and help others to do the same. This is much more successful than the government telling farmers what to do. For example in Sri Lanka in 2021, the government banned all agrichemicals, and farmers protested, so the ban was cancelled.

The change in Andhra Pradesh is very important, not just for the farmers but also for our climate. That’s because agroecology takes carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil, at the same time as improving fertility and increasing wildlife.

Intensive agriculture does the opposite. In the last 8,000 years, farming has released over 500 billion tonnes of CO2 into air. Now we have about 1,000 billion tonnes of extra CO2 in the atmosphere compared with pre-industrial times. If even a very small part of the 500 billion lost from soils could be restored, this would be great progress in moving us back to a safer climate.

Agroecology could change agriculture into a climate solution rather than a climate problem (now it is responsible for 20-30 per cent of global emissions) – but only if it’s used together with other important changes. These include: a move away from industrial, centralized agriculture to a ‘food sovereignty’ model, where farmers and communities control their own lands, and a reduction in how much meat and dairy we eat, especially in the Global North.

Our system now wastes a third of all the food it produces. After this changes, we can free more land for ‘rewilding’, to take more carbon from the atmosphere with natural systems.

But the 2021 Glasgow climate did not mention soil at all. The US and United Arab Emirates promised $4 billion for ‘climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation’, but campaigners are afraid that this money will just go to making intensive agriculture look greener.

So the example in Andhra Pradesh is even more important.

‘The world should look at what farmers are doing, not just at research papers.

‘Nature is telling us: if you understand how I work, if you work with me not against me, then we can all win.’

Like so much of the climate crisis, the solutions already exist. We just need our governments to start listening to the farmers and communities who are already changing, not to the agribusinesses who created the problems in the first place.

With thanks to Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)