“Farmers are the heroes.”
~ Rhett Brian
Burning is an age-old practice to clear the fields of the remains of last year’s crops, and it makes plowing and seeding much easier. However, poet and journalist Rhett Brian reports, “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 … 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, meanwhile, slow the wind’s circulation, sealing the smog in place to irritate lungs, eyes and hearts.”
Maybe it’s time for a change.
Science journalist Bianca Nogrady is optimistic, “With growing awareness of the consequences of these methods both for soil fertility and for greenhouse gas emissions, many farmers are moving to low-till or no-till methods of farming, where seeds or seedlings are planted directly into the soil without disturbing it as much. In addition, these methods deliberately leave more crop waste on the soil surface, which not only returns those nutrients to the soil but also reduces both the release of carbon into the air and erosion from wind and rain. No-till agriculture also uses around one-third the fuel of conventional tilling, and improves water storage in the soil.”
Brian identified some farmers who “were early adopters of a crop seeding machine called Happy Seeder that chops paddy stubble and plants wheat seeds at the same time … Not only do seeders like this one eliminate the need to burn, they also improve the soil by spreading the chopped rice straw as mulch, trapping moisture and creating natural fertilizer.”
Nogrady is also optimistic about alternative approaches, “There is another final — some might say ‘last resort’ — set of tools in the decarbonisation toolkit: ‘negative emissions technologies’ — technologies that store or sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they produce. These come in two main forms: nature-based solutions such as reforestation and afforestation, and more technological solutions such as direct air carbon capture and storage, enhanced weathering, biochar, and soil carbon sequestration.”
“The good news is this is already happening naturally. Around half of the excess carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere by human activity — the combustion of fossil fuels — is ‘drawn down’ again by natural processes: half by land-based processes — mainly plants — and half by the oceans.”
“Traditionally, reforestation and agriculture have not sat well together, both requiring land that has sufficient nutrients, rainfall and temperatures conducive to growth … But the two activities are not mutually exclusive. Agriculture can work with reforestation to play a vital role in climate change mitigation — sequestering carbon — while delivering the added benefit of more nutrient-rich soils, less fertiliser (sic) use, less water use, increased production and better food and economic security.”
Arbor Day Foundation CEO Dan Lambe observes, “Globally, trees are the most scalable and cost-effective tool in the fight against climate change. Trees clean the air and vacuum up carbon. They foster biodiversity and support critical habitats … Trees are home to 80% of all animals, plants, and insects that live on land. That includes some butterflies, bats, bears, frogs, birds — not to mention the neighborhood squirrels seeking an escape from your dog in the backyard.”
“Though humans aren’t always dependent on treetops for shelter, trees can save our lives too … Being around trees can also improve a person’s blood pressure, mental health and boost creativity.”
So, the choice is not between agriculture and reforestation, but about which measures we need to take to survive. It looks like there are practical options, starting with tree planting.
Go plant a tree. Save the world.
Rett Brian, A Burning Problem, March 2023, Global Insights, The Nature Conservancy
Bianca Nogrady We’ve Got Carbon Capture All Wrong, 6 April 2021, WIRED
Dan Lambe, What Trees Can Do for You, March 23, 2023, TreeHugger
I think only strict government policy can change the situation. Delhi is the worst place to live (pollution, safety issues, prices). But farmers always claim that they don’t have money to recycle crops and not to burn fields. The government could help but money used for various nonsense.