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Rainfed agriculture:
Towards a paradigm shift

A paradigmatic shift in rainfed agriculture needs to embrace the diversity of rainfed areas by providing location-specific solutions and institutional support for the same.

Diversity is the one word that characterises the rainfed agricultural areas of India, spread over 77 million hectares of the country. Diversity of the cultures and cuisines of the indigenous communities that live there. Diversity of flora and fauna. Diversity of crops and cropping patterns. And diversity in topography, rainfall patterns and soils.

India’s structural frameworks for agricultural policies and investments have, over the decades, eroded this rich diversity and led to the ecological degradation of rainfed agroecosystems. The constant poisoning of the soils, the decreasing availability of water, and the increasing unpredictability of weather has resulted in declining incomes, increased indebtedness, and a higher-than-average suicide rate among farmers who depend on rainfed agriculture.

A new paradigm for structural investments is needed to make rainfed agriculture economically viable and ecologically regenerative: A paradigm that privileges strengthening and integrating production systems rather than merely increasing productivity, and a paradigm that reduces risks for ensuring sustained year-round incomes rather than guaranteeing seasonal employment. With rainfed agriculture contributing to 60% of the agricultural GDP and supplying 44% of the country’s food requirements in terms of grains, pulses, oil seeds, meat etc., appropriate public investments into this sector would lead to nutritional security, sustainable economic growth, and climate resilience.

Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network ( supports the diversity of rainfed areas by promoting a diversity of location-specific agroecological practices. Such decentralized practices include community empowerment, use of indigenous seeds (particularly landraces), crop diversification, mobile irrigation systems, decentralised value chains, and farming methods that include livestock (ideally native breeds) integrated into the farm and landscape. By scaling such practices through structural paradigm shifts, regenerative rainfed agriculture can be the next (r)evolutionary shift in India’s agriculture.

Rain fed systems encompasses an enormous diversity of environments, and farming systems have evolved to fit into many of them. Rainfed farming systems are found in areas as diverse as the Sahelian zone of west and central Africa; eastern and southern Africa; west and central Asia; Afghanistan and Pakistan; central India; western China; semi-arid Australia; northern Mexico; and the prairies and central plains of USA and Canada. This chapter discusses ways of classifying rainfed farming systems for comparative, predictive and management purposes, and to assist in change from one type of system to another. Here, four categories of rainfed farming systems are distinguished: high-latitude rainfed systems with cold winters; mid-latitude rainfed systems with mild winters; subtropical and tropical rainfed highland farm systems; and semi-arid tropical and subtropical farming systems. Within these categories, systems are subdivided into two archetypes, based on low or high levels of productivity and farming intensity. Factors that influence the intensity and productivity of rainfed farming systems include the ratio of precipitation to potential evapotranspiration, water availability, drought risk, temperature regimes, soil quality, external input use, marketing margins, market access, tenure security, policy environment, and the purpose of crop–livestock integration. There are many interrelationships among these factors. For example, drought risk and water availability are affected by water harvesting practices, risk management practices, soil characteristics, rainfall patterns and other climate variables. Soil characteristics are influenced by organic and inorganic fertiliser management and enterprise selection (including crop selection and crop–livestock integration). These are affected by input and product prices which in their turn are influenced by marketing margins and market access. Finally, all systems are affected by the quality of market infrastructure, and policies and institutional arrangements.

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