Sardar Amar Singh’s hands tell many stories: weathered skin marks a lifetime of hard work, a shortened index finger, the result of a wheat cutting accident, reveals a streak of resilience.
Like many of his neighbors, Singh is a transformer. The 80 year-old turns small seeds into food that sustains the world’s 2nd most populous nation.
Though his farm is less than an acre in size, it’s woven into India’s breadbasket, a network of millions of small farms across the Northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana.
Today, after a recent planting, Singh’s field is taking in the sun, waiting to transform. But around it, smoke fills the air from multiple directions. Soon, the sun will be replaced by a pale dot, signaling bleak times ahead.
Right now, much of India’s breadbasket is on fire.
The burning question
At roughly the same time each year, 2 million farmers across Punjab and Haryana set their fields aflame.
The heat kills the microbes that once gave the soil its fertility. Millions of tons of carbon dioxide that were stored up in plants drift into the upper atmosphere, adding to the growing layer of gases heating the planet.
At the surface, toxins like carbon monoxide and ozone fill the air, making breathing difficult for rural and urban residents alike.
Why burn? For many farmers, the decision is less a decision and more a response to climate-shortened growing seasons, regulatory requirements and rapid changes in the world of farming.
Fortunately, the solutions also start with transformations in farming, and farmers like Singh are sharing what they know with anyone who’ll listen.
Farming methods that work with nature to improve the health of soils can play an enormous role in fighting climate change while enhancing the conditions for growing food.
In Northwest India, soil health practices can also help eliminate the harmful fires, save precious water and bring back the sun.
A tale of two scarcities
In the 1960s, India’s Green Revolution brought high-yielding seeds and machinery like tractors to Punjab and Haryana, turning the region into an agricultural powerhouse.
Charged with bolstering India’s food security, millions of farmers started doing what was once inconceivable: growing both rice and wheat on the same field in the same year.
But, over time, this new intensified farming caused groundwater levels to dip dangerously low, threatening communities and ecosystems. To save water, the government started in 2009 to require farmers to wait to flood their rice paddies until the start of the monsoon rains.
This shift helped address the water scarcity, but as a side effect, it caused a new scarcity: time. Suddenly the time between the rice harvest and wheat planting shrank to just 10-20 days.
This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the stubble.
Big trouble with stubble
Farmers are able to quickly gather the rice by driving large combine harvesting machines, but the process leaves behind a sharp and twisting heap of woody straw known as paddy stubble. In order to plant wheat, they must remove this maze of stubble—and fast.
With the window for planting wheat rapidly closing, millions of farmers hastily clear the stubble by simply burning it.
The fiery haze reaches a crescendo in October and November. Toxins from the fires mix with pollutants from other sources like factories and transportation.
The season’s cooling temperatures slow the wind’s circulation, sealing the smog in place to irritate lungs, eyes and hearts. The indoors give little reprieve; homes in this region were built with ventilation in mind.
Seeding a better future
Amandeep Kaur knows it doesn’t have to be this way. She also knows she could’ve escaped the haze and accepted an offer from a foreign university. Instead, Kaur chose college close to home so she could support her family’s farm in Punjab.
She’s made a sizeable impact on farming in her community, and her voice is only growing.
Kaur urged her father to stop burning crop residue several years ago. Now she helps lead the family’s operations across 45 acres. The father-daughter duo, willing to try something new, were early adopters of a crop seeding machine called Happy Seeder that holds a lot of promise.
As the Happy Seeder rolls behind its towing tractor, it:
1) collects and chops the paddy stubble
2) plants wheat seeds into the soil, and
3) spreads the chopped rice straw over the wheat as a mulch.
Not only do seeders like this one eliminate the need to burn, they also improve the soil by trapping moisture and creating natural fertilizer.
While stubble-burning neighbors must increasingly spend more income on fertilizers to rebuild their fields, Kaur’s soil has stayed alive and is constantly regenerating and enriching itself. It’s also supporting a web of life.
“When we burn the fields, we are burning biodiversity,” says Kaur. “But even insects have family and we need to respect that.”
Farmers are the heroes
Every farmer who switches away from burning stubble represents a win for the planet. But in a region where farms average less than 10 acres, substantially reducing carbon emissions and recharging the water table will take a lot of farmers.
Switching 250,000 more farms to no-burn agriculture is The Nature Conservancy (TNC) current goal, after years of piloting with farmers across the region.
“The most distinctive feature of this work is its scale,” says Annapurna Vancheswaran, Managing Director of TNC India. TNC’s approach in India sees farmers as partners and the heroes they can be in combatting climate change, water scarcity and air pollution.
As Vancheswaran’s team helps farmers switch off of burning, it identifies the most practical and affordable methods that can be shared more broadly. Beyond providing valuable insights, farmers like Singh and Kaur infuse energy and optimism that invigorates TNC and it partners.
There is, after all, a lot of work to do; helping 250,000 farmers change how they farm requires reaching millions of people in one way or another.
And the ways are many: Farmer WhatsApp groups. Wall murals. Mobile apps. Thousands of agri-entrepreneurs trained to connect farmers to available machinery in thousands of villages. Accessible info about the latest seeder models and about growing diverse crops like fruits and vegetables.
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And the ever-powerful word-of-mouth between farmers.
“Most people are willing to try these machines out,” says Amar Singh, who’s been known to go around his village trying to convince farmers to switch to various new tools instead of burning their fields.
For many farmers, seeing is believing. Finding comparable harvests is great; experiencing rejuvenated soil that needs less water and fertilizers is even better.
The roots of burning run shallow
Over the next few years, TNC and local partners across northwest India hope to prevent 6 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, while saving 500 billion liters of the region’s stressed water resources.
As technologies for carbon storage and renewable energy continue to develop, India can right now focus on meeting some of their carbon reduction commitments by improving how its breadbasket region grows food.
It will take some unlearning, some transformation and a detour from the conventional. Going against the grain, against popular practice, is always a risk.
But the legacy of stubble burning does not go back so far. Its roots, unlike the stubble itself, can be plucked with ease.
“The younger generation is more aware and against stubble burning. We are interested in new technologies and newer ways of making things work,” says Kaur.
“I believe in a few years no one will burn their fields anymore. They won’t need to.”