Tailored targeting needed: new study assesses the impacts of sustainable intensification on farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains
By Marcia MacNeil
Sustainable cropping system intensification – for example, planting legumes in the off season – is a well-documented conservation agriculture (CA) agronomic practice in wheat-rice cropping systems. While the benefits of this practice for environmentally sustainable production are clear – including providing near-permanent soil cover and improving soil quality while yielding an additional protein-rich crop for consumption or sale – the implications for individual smallholder farmers have been less well examined.
Scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and partner organizations recently studied how rearranging cropping patterns would affect five different types of smallholder farmers in the rural state of Bihar, in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India.
The results, published in Farm-level exploration of economic and environmental impacts of sustainable intensification of rice-wheat cropping systems in the Eastern Indo-Gangetic plains in the European Journal of Agronomy found that the economic benefits and ease of rearranging cropping systems differ widely by farm type.
The Indo-Gangetic Plains are an important agricultural area for cereal production in India, with rice-wheat cropping systems covering around 10.3 million hectares. However, continuous intensive cultivation of these crops has led to soil degradation and over-use of limited freshwater resources. Farmers in the rural state of Bihar are particularly vulnerable to climate change-related heat, drought and flood risks, and face a growing challenge to maintain their crop productivity while protecting natural resources.
The study authors, including CIMMYT scientists ML Jat and Santiago Lopez-Ridaura, chose 5 Bihar farmer types to evaluate: the Farm Manager, with the largest farm and most family members to provide labor; the Wealthy Farmer, with large land and livestock holdings; the Arable Farmer with no livestock and a mango orchard as a main source of income; the Small Farmer, with less than 1 hectare of land, 3 animals and 4 family members, and the Marginal Farmer with only 1/3 hectare of land, completely cultivated with wheat and rice, and 10 family members.
“Using an optimization model, we measured the trade-offs between the environmental benefits and the profitability of intercropping with mung bean for these different types of farmers,” said Lopez-Ridaura. “We found that these trade-offs can be extensive.”
On the positive side, the study authors found that intercropping with mung bean had allowed all five farmers to save water, increase soil organic matter content and decrease nitrogen losses on their farms.
“The environmental benefits of intercropping are undeniable,” said WUR’s Jeroen Groot, co-author of the study. “However, we found that making the switch to sustainable cropping intensification was not equally financially beneficial for all farm types.”
The Farm Manager and Wealthy Farmer had more options to favorably rearrange their farms, resulting in the best outcome on multiple objectives. The Arable Farmer, Small Farmer and Marginal Farmer showed considerably smaller potential to improve the overall performance of the farm.for m
“In practical terms, our results suggest that policies and programs for sustainable intensification of cereal-based cropping systems in Bihar should use strategies that are targeted by farm type,” said Jat.
“A participatory approach to developing these strategies, including input from farmers, will improve understanding of the challenges and opportunities in targeting investments for sustainable farming practices.”
Read the full article here.
This research was conducted by CIMMYT, Wageningen University & Research, the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The research is a product of CIMMYT Academy through a student research project with Wageningen University and supported by the CGIAR Research Programs on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and Wheat Agri-food Systems (WHEAT); the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR); and all donors who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.