Godavari Basin: Agriculture facing up to Anthropocene challenges

Godavari Basin: Agriculture facing up to Anthropocene challenges

Agriculture in the Anthropocene faces radically distinct challenges from previous decades, including significantly increasing production of food for healthy diets within planetary boundaries.

Central India's Godavari Basin represents a complex microcosm of this challenge, requiring novel approaches to agricultural research for development that include strong collaborations with multiple partners, acute recognition and respect for human health and conservation targets, as well as co-design of intervention options together with farming communities. During the week of 20 October, a team of scientists from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the State Agricultural University (SAU) and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT furthered an ambitious initiative to co-develop integrated scenarios for healthy and sustainable diets and land use systems, working with local partners and farming families in the Godavari Basin.

Biodiversity conservation is both a specific objective in this landscape, as well as a means of addressing many of agriculture's Anthropocene challenges. Here's what we have learned:

Dietary diversity: populations in the basins are amongst the fastest growing in the world, with several medium and large cities emerging in the plains. While rice, cotton and maize will continue to be important crops providing much needed revenue to farmers, the landscape will need to provide a diversity of fruits, nuts and vegetables which underpin healthy diets. The traditional Indian diet is amongst the most diverse globally and an excellent example of the planetary health diet. Transitions to western diets in the region would be devastating for both human and environmental health. In India, malnutrition remains the number one driver of premature mortality, though dropping by 35% over the past decade. Obesity has crept up to the number nine slot with an alarming 102% increase.Diabetes is number six, with a 40% increase. Providing both enough and better-quality foods has to be prioritized to address this challenge. Encouragingly we met Sampath Kumar just outside Karimnagar. Sam defies all current stereotypes at age 33, leaving his desk job to cultivate seventeen different crops on 2.5 hectares on the outskirts of the city, using mostly 'rational' production practices (semi-organic). YouTube serves as his extension officer and Facebook as his marketing agent. Achieving healthy diets will require many more like Sampath globally.

Agroecological diversity: what brought the ICAR, SAU and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT teams together were concerns that rapid growth in the use of biocides, irrigation water and fertilizers were pushing the landscape beyond local environmental boundaries, with critical impacts on water quality and quantity and spill-over effects on freshwater fishery productivity and diversity. "The Godavari Basin is one of the oldest geological regions on Earth, and the center of origin of an evolutionarily unique fish diversity" says ICAR’s Dr. Kuldeep K. Lal, Director of the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources. Fish diversity in this Basin also makes up an important part of dietary and nutritional diversity and economic income throughout the region.

The plan? To increase agricultural productivity and diversity while reducing negative impacts of agrochemical abuse. This implies reduced use of agrochemicals with a concomitant increase in biological controls through combined impacts of habitat creation for insectivorous bird diversity and parasitic wasps. It also inculdes land use diversification as well as fragmentation of the agricultural matrix to reduce pest movement, while increasing habitat and connectivity in support of biological controls. Dr. Rahman and Dr. Vasudeva Rao, from the 'All Indian Coordinated Research Project' (AICRP) on Biological Control, are collaborating with Dr. Kuldeep and the Alliance of Boversity International and CIAT on just such strategies. For instance, the project has been perfecting biocontrol measures such as the production of 2cm2 tabs of paper that can be placed in fields, releasing 16,000 parasitic wasps that prey on pests.

Furthermore, crop rotations within field and between field diversification, habitat connectivity and landscape-managed biological control will be explored as an integrated package by the Alliance team to test impact on nutritional yields, water quality, water quantity, and biodiversity conservation, both aquatic and terrestrial.

Wild biodiversity conservation: in the center of the Godavari landscape lies the 2015kmKuwal Tiger reserve, established to protect the critically endangered Bengal Tiger and other key species. Today, between 5-8 adults have colonized the reserve. Populations pressures, agricultural expansion, poaching and environmental contamination are the biggest threats to native biodiversity in the region, as flagged in the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment. The Anthropocene is the era where conservation and production goals have to be considered as equally intransgressible. As such, agricultural interventions modelled for the Godavari Basin will seek to maximize the retention of protected areas and intact land to support biodiversity, while maintaining environmental flows in support of both human and biodiversity needs. Agriculture should be just as much about conservation as it is about production.

Way forward: Farmers in the Godavari Basin are faced with multiple challenges. Climate change is already manifesting itself in part through climatic aberrations like increased off-season rains soaking harvests and driving pre-market germination and loss. Scientifically tested solutions to some of the challenges in the area are available through knowledge networks, nonetheless, policies supporting conventional production (e.g. subsidies for intensive rice production) and one-size-fits-all type solutions demanded by farmers and provided by commercial sellers limit the transition towards regenerative and agroecological production practices. Yet there is no shortage of potential solutions. Starting with a clear vision of long-term targets, the ICAR, SAU and Alliance team aims to co-create, together with farming communities, future food and land use system scenarios able to switc agriculture's impact from degrading to regenerating. Through extensive field work, scaling models and trade-off analyses, the team will assess the extent, targeting, and cost of potential interventions, providing policymakers with clear, costed recommendations for action. This is a long-term investment by the partnership, but one which - if achieved successfully - will serve as a model for alignment between health, production, equity and sustainability.

This research is conducted as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems and is supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund.