Soil – the climate fix that COP forgot

Danny Chivers digs into a major Indian farming project that pulls carbon from the air – and increases yields for farmers.

Farmers in Andara Pradesh, India have led the way restoring soils and boosting yields. JAKE LYELL/ALAMY

The recent climate agreement forged in Glasgow did not mention farming or soils once. Vijay Kumar Thallam believes this was a major oversight.

One of the world’s leading proponents of agroecology, Thallam is driving an extraordinary project in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Since 2016, its government has been supporting its six million farmers to transition to a fully natural, chemical-free farming system, known as ‘community-managed natural farming’.

Thallam is head of the Natural Farming Mission in the Andhra Pradesh government. His work has already helped over 750,000 farmers and farm workers to make the switch to more regenerative farming, a figure set to reach over a million in 2022. Vitally, as well improving yields for farmers, these methods cut climate-changing nitrous emissions from fertilizers, and pull carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil.

How did he do it? ‘Did the government offer payments or incentives?’ I ask him on a video call from India just before the COP26 climate talks. ‘No,’ he replies with a smile, explaining that this was a much more bottom-up effort.

‘In 2015 we had a very tough year: bad drought, and then very heavy rains. Farmers were facing high costs for chemical inputs, and increasing risks of losing their harvests from droughts and floods thanks to climate change.

‘I was keen for us to deal with the underlying problems, not just the symptoms. These are the people who are feeding us, they deserve justice in the system, not to be facing debt, misery and increased rates of suicide.

‘There were existing groups in the state, especially organizations of women farmers, who were already working on tackling these problems,’ he explains. ‘We gave them the research and information they needed to shift to more traditional and natural methods – backed up by the latest science – that could free them of chemical inputs, reduce their costs and restore their soils.’

After a year or two, the farmers found their yields would match – or often exceed – the yields from chemical farming, once the soils had recovered.

Once farmers saw the benefits they became the champions of those methods, spreading the word and helping others to try it too. This collaborative method seems to be meeting with far more success than – for example – the top-down green policies trialled in Sri Lanka this year, where a blanket ban on agrichemicals led to a major backlash from farmers, leading to a government U-turn.

The change being showcased in Andhra Pradesh is crucially important, not just for the farmers but for our shared climate. That’s because, agroecology, or ‘regenerative agriculture’, draws carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil, at the same time as improving fertility and boosting wildlife.

Intensive agriculture does the opposite. Disturbance to the soil has released the equivalent of over 500 billion tonnes of CO2 into air in the last 8,000 years. To give you an idea of scale, we currently have around 1,000 billion tonnes of extra CO2 in the atmosphere compared with pre-industrial times. [1] If even a fraction of the 500 billion lost from soils could be restored, this would represent serious progress in shifting us back towards a safer climate.

The tools for doing this already exist. Developed by small-scale and indigenous farmers and backed up by soil scientists, this ever-evolving set of methods is being applied around the world by farmers, who are cutting out soil-wrecking agrochemicals and replacing them with a mix of traditional and cutting-edge techniques.

Agroecology has real potential to transform agriculture into a climate solution rather than a climate problem, currently responsible for 20-30 per cent of global emissions – but only if it’s combined with other vital reforms. These include: a shift away from industrial, centralized agriculture to a ‘food sovereignty’ model, which puts farmers and communities in control their own lands, and a reduction in meat and dairy consumption, especially in the Global North.4

Once land is shifted away from a globalized profit-driven farming system, which wastes a third of all the food it produces, it can be freed up for rewilding, drawing yet more carbon from the atmosphere as natural systems are restored.

Despite all these potential gains, the agreement signed by governments at the 2021 Glasgow climate summit made not a single mention of soil. While the US and United Arab Emirates promised $4 billion for ‘climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation’ campaigners fear this money will be spent on making intensive agrobusiness look a little greener, rather than the paradigm shift that is so urgently needed.

All of which makes the example being set in Andhra Pradesh all the more important, and remarkable.

‘We are living in a dangerous time, but it also gives us the opportunity to reset the way we do things,’ says Vijay Thallam. ‘I would strongly urge the world to not just look at research papers, but at what farmers are doing on the ground.

‘Nature isn’t looking for trade-offs. Nature is telling us: if you understand the way I function, if you change your behaviour to work with me rather than against me, then we can all win.’

As with so many aspects of the climate crisis, the solutions already exist. We just need our governments to start listening to the farmers and frontline communities who are already putting them in place, rather than the agribusinesses who created the problems in the first place.


With thanks to Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland

[1] The pre-industrial level of atomospheric CO2 of 280 parts per million (ppm) is equivalent to around 2,200 billion tonnes. The current level of 410 ppm represents around 3,200 billion tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere today.