Meha Jain on Environmental Goals for India’s Agriculture Industry

Meha Jain's research examines the impacts of environmental change on agricultural production, and strategies that farmers may adopt to reduce negative impacts. She does this by combining remote sensing and geospatial analyses with household-level and census datasets to examine farmer decision-making and behavior across large spatial and temporal scales. To date her work has focused on the impacts of weather variability and groundwater depletion on agricultural production in India, and whether farmers are able to adapt their cropping practices to mitigate these impacts.

Julia Schulman CMC '23 interviewed Dr. Meha Jain on November 5, 2021.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Meha Jain.

Prime minister Narendra Modi promised to cut India’s emissions to net zero by 2070 during the climate summit. How will this affect India’s agriculture industry?

Agriculture will definitely be impacted by this decision. Globally, agriculture and food account for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. In India, it's estimated that agriculture makes up about 18 percent of India's emissions. In order to reach net zero, there's going to be an impact on agriculture. There have been some studies that have tried to identify which sectors within agriculture are really contributing the most greenhouse gas emissions and it seems like the main issues are rice cultivation, livestock production, and crop residue burning. There are a few key ways that India could reduce its emissions from agriculture. The first would be to increase input use efficiency. In other words, this would be figuring out ways to use fertilizer and irrigation more efficiently. This is particularly important for rice because this is the crop that is associated with the most emissions across India. Another key strategy that can be adopted is the use of zero tillage technologies. These technologies allow farmers to plant seeds within fields without needing to till the soils and prepare the lands in advance. This is beneficial because it reduces some of the energy that is needed to prepare lands. The newer zero tillage technologies also allow you to plant seeds within the residue from the previous crop. This is important because Northwest Indian farmers have historically been burning the residues off their fields and these burnt residues contribute a lot to greenhouse gas emissions. They are also bad for public health. The exciting thing about a lot of these solutions is that studies have shown that many of them are win-win strategies, where you can both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also improve yields and improve profits for farmers. There is a lot of scope for India's agricultural sector to reach net zero through the use of some of these solutions.

Some note that countries are not moving quickly enough to address climate change and cut emissions. Is 2070 too late? 

Changes in temperature and precipitation that are associated with climate change are already negatively impacting crop yields. Some studies estimate that yields in India have already declined by 5-10% compared to what yields could have been without climate change. The faster we can reduce emissions and get to net zero, the better. 

What are the issues that the agriculture industry in India will face due to climate change?

Climate change is already impacting the Indian agricultural industry. There are a few key changes that have occurred due to climate change. One is warming temperatures. Studies have shown that warming temperatures have already reduced the yields of some staple crops like wheat by 5 percent. Over the next few decades, it is estimated that warming temperatures can reduce yields by up to 20 percent. Another big issue caused by climate change is changes in rainfall patterns. Studies have shown that the distribution of rainfall during the monsoon season is changing. Rainfall events are becoming more intense, so there are heavier rainy days. Then there are longer dry spells or longer break periods between rainfall events. Some studies have shown that this more uneven distribution of rainfall is reducing yields for some of India’s main staple crops. Another thing that I wanted to highlight is in addition to climate change, India is facing a severe groundwater challenge. India is the largest consumer of groundwater worldwide. It provides 60% of India’s irrigation and it's becoming critically overexploited in many parts of the country. Hence, at the same time that farmers are dealing with climate change, they are also dealing with increased water scarcity. 

India did not sign the COP26 forest and methane pledge. Do you believe this was due to the fear that the pledge would negatively affect the agriculture industry? 

From what I have read, I believe that one of the main reasons India did not sign on is because of methane produced by cattle. Cattle are one of the main types of livestock that many farmers across the country have. Studies have shown that cattle produce approximately 25 percent of India's total greenhouse gas emissions. People have argued that one reason India has not signed this methane pledge is because it is worried about what it would mean for rural farmers who depend on these cattle for their livelihoods.

Is it possible for India’s agriculture industry’s interests to align with U.S. and global environmental goals, or will they always conflict on some level? 

The alignment of interests is completely possible, especially considering some of the new technologies and practices that I mentioned earlier. There are a lot of strategies that exist to increase input use efficiency, which would reduce overall input use and reduce carbon emissions while maintaining crop yields. A reduction in input use would also provide additional environmental benefits, including reduced groundwater depletion and fertilizer runoff. While many win-win strategies exist, we need to figure out ways to increase the adoption and diffusion of these strategies across farmers in India. 

What do you think is the number one priority for India in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change?

While farmers can reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change by altering their current management practices, for example by increasing irrigation use and changing the timing of planting, this will likely not be enough to fully mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. I think farmers will also need access to new seeds that are more resilient to warming temperatures, intense rainfall events, and/or long dry periods. While there are efforts to breed new seeds that are more tolerant of extreme weather, I think this should be a priority over the coming decade. 

Julia Schulman CMC '23Student Journalist

CIAT, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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