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Changes in Agriculture in Ladakh

Farming_Nawang Tankhe.jpg

Illustration by Nawang Tankhe

The rapid shift away from agriculture to other economic activities is a common trend in many agrarian economies globally, often driven by factors such as urbanization, changing lifestyles, and economic opportunities outside the agricultural sector. Agriculture in Ladakh is no exception.

In the traditional Ladakhi farming and food system, the sun provided the primary energy, enabling plant growth, muscle-based labour power and fast-flowing water for milling and irrigating. The fertility of the soil and crops came from recycling of manure and compost (lut, chulut, and the like) into the fields and from minerals in the glacial melt-water. ‘Packaging’ – if any – was in the form of hand-made woolen sacks, wooden and clay vessels, willow baskets, and masonry granaries, all of which could be safely returned to the soil after they wore out. Transportation of the crops was done with muscle power, and cooking done with local renewable fuels like dung cakes or wood sticks. Care was taken to conserve pasturelands through rotational grazing, and farmers tried to minimise harm done even to insects in the fields. The ecological footprint – meaning total ecological impacts including energy and water consumption, waste generation, etc. – was very low. In current terms, we could say that the traditional Ladakhi farming and food system was solar-powered, zero-external input, zero-waste, regenerative, closed-loop, and sustainable!

Today, while much of the traditional farming and food system continues to exist, it is steadily being eroded by a number of profound socio-economic changes. The environmental impacts of these changes are increasing year by year.

One of the important changes has been the decline of villages due to various reasons and the decline in farming-pastoralism systems that sustained them for centuries. The growth of tourism, the army, and competitive education have combined to drain young people, and young men in particular, out of the villages and into Leh, or even further away. As a result, there is less total labour available, and more farming work has fallen on village women and paid labour. Many fields that were once lush and green in the summers today lie fallow for lack of people to work them. With fewer people, livestock herds have decreased significantly, and in the case of goats and sheep nearly disappeared from many villages. While this change may have benefitted wild herbivores to some extent by reducing competition for forage, it has also reduced the amount of rich, organic local manure available for soil and crop nutrition. To make up for this, many farmers turn to the use of synthetic fertilisers which pollute both water and air, and are very energy-intensive to manufacture from fossil fuels.

Crops & Water

The decline of agriculture is also seen in the reduction of diversity in crops including pulses, cereals and pseudo cereals like buckwheat (although efforts are slowly being made to bring back buckwheat). Fewer local pulses like the traditional black bean in Ladakhi fields and kitchens diminishes the health of the local diet as well as local soils. Pulses naturally fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, so when they are planted there is no need for nitrogen fertilisers. Without them, however, an important source of natural fertility is lost. In terms of oilseeds, whereas Ladakhis formerly cultivated local mustard more extensively and produced much of their own edible oil, today mustard farming is also declining. Commercial edible oils, packaged in plastic bottles and trucked in from the Indian plains are now widely used in Ladakhi kitchens.

In the 14,000-foot village of Gya, farmers used to cultivate different varieties of barley because the area's climate was conducive to their growth. Because of the region's low temperatures, wheat is rarely grown in Ladakh's eastern region. The people in that same region are currently cultivating over thirty-six to thirty-seven different kinds of grains and vegetables. Acho Urgain, from Gya village, says that this may be because he has access to a wider range of plants these days. He is cultivating new crops like quinoa, and Tse Tse (Foxtail millet), which are native Ladakh millets that are rarely grown these days. Since 2014, green peas have been grown extensively throughout Ladakh because of factors including climate change that favours such crops, but more importantly because of increasing commercialisation of agriculture, as green peas have high market demand inside and outside Ladakh. A variety of relatively novel vegetables are today grown, such as cauliflower, cabbage, beetroot, and various turnip varieties.

One of the many changes in agriculture that people in the mountains are facing is a lack of water, especially during times of great need.  It is imperative that water be given to the fields by the end of March or the start of April. Variable weather patterns cause glaciers to hold onto water by not melting during the seeding season. June 21st marks the change of the days, so in July there will still be a water shortage. Another impact of climate change on agriculture is from increasing likelihood and severity of glacial lake outburst floods, which have had catastrophic impacts on downstream villages, such as in Gya village in 2007, 2009, and 2014.



Land use

The perspective of agri-entrepreneur Rinchen Yutol from Reetsot in Ladakh highlights the rapid changes in the past decade, which may present both challenges and opportunities.

The conversion of agricultural lands into concrete structures poses a significant challenge, and reversing this process is often impractical. This irreplaceable loss reduces self-reliance in food and increases dependency on imported foods. Such dependency increases vulnerability in the case of any disruptions (like fuel shortages, or road closures) in the transportation network across the Himalaya. Additionally, the fragmentation of agricultural lands due to nuclear families can further reduce the overall agricultural land use.

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Chortens and fields of Markha; Wikimedia Commons



Synthetic fertilisers have been used in Ladakh since about the late 1970s, supplied by the government at highly subsidised rates. Three main synthetic fertilisers are used: urea, DAP (diammonium phosphate), and MOP (Muriate of Potash/potassium chloride). Data from the Agriculture Department and Mission Organic Development Initiative of Ladakh show that in general, quantities of synthetic fertiliser use are decreasing in Ladakh. This trend is reflective of the Hill Council’s new vision to make Leh District fully organic within 10 years. This is very encouraging, since the more fertilisers are used, the more they disrupt the availability of natural nitrogen in the soil, which requires more fertilisers – a chemical addiction!

Besides the loss of livestock manure, the shift to flush toilets and septic tanks accompanying tourism – especially but not only in Leh – is also depriving the soil of rich human manure from traditional compost toilets.

To supplement local supplies, there are new initiatives to bring animal manure from Changthang for use in villages in the farming districts of Ladakh, and the government is also importing organic manure from Punjab. While this is certainly a welcome change from chemical fertilisers, transporting manure and compost also carries an environmental cost in terms of fuel consumption and diesel smoke exhaust. A future challenge will therefore be to generate organic manure and compost closer to where it is to be used, to reduce transport costs and pollution, and to keep valuable local nutrients recycling through local soils. Aggressive promotion of compost toilets, restaurant and residential food scrap collection and composting, and other initiatives could play a role in regenerating the local compost economy.


One of the most crucial factors to consider when examining the changes in any region's agriculture is the seed. The availability of native or local seeds is impacted by the decline in production of native or older crops. The majority of seeds for vegetables that are currently offered by the government or in the market are or hybrid seeds, which have the potential to alter the agricultural landscape of Ladakh, and have implications for the food sovereignty of the region and the economic independence of its farmers. 

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Traditional threshing of harvest in Lamayuru; Wikimedia Commons




Dependence on fossil fuel energy has also been increasing in agriculture and pastoralism, as traditional tools, draught animals and techniques are replaced by mechanical, gas-powered threshing machines, mills, ploughs, tractors, etc. In Changthang, pick-up trucks and jeeps are steadily replacing draught animals, which impact the topsoil of the rangelands. This transition also increases dependency on the money economy and outside jobs to pay for hiring or buying the machines and the fuel to power them.


The shift away from the traditional farming and food system in Ladakh, combined with forces like tourism, is clearly having very undesirable environmental impacts. If both public health and the environment are being degraded by this shift, then maybe it is time to rethink, change direction and regenerate the local food economy. How could this happen? The Hill Council’s commitment to making Ladakh an organic farming region is a very encouraging first step. Additionally, the optimism and enthusiasm shown by individuals like Acho Urgain and Rinchen Youtol are encouraging. Their deep understanding of the importance of agriculture in the current era, both economically and beyond, suggests a potential for positive change. Initiatives that focus on sustainable and innovative agricultural practices, coupled with educational programs to raise awareness about the significance of agriculture, can contribute to the revival and retention of this essential sector. In what other ways can the government and local people support such a change, discouraging packaged junk food while encouraging a return to traditional crops, restoration of livestock herds, village renewal, and so on? How can arable land be protected in perpetuity for farming? Can modern farm machines be powered by local, renewable energy? How can young people addicted to junk food rediscover and revalue healthy local foods? What role can tourists play in supporting local, organic food and farming? These and many other questions will need to be urgently answered.

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Wikimedia Commons

About the Storytellers 


Alex Jensen

Alex Jensen is a Researcher and Project Coordinator at Local Futures. He has worked in the US and India, where he co-ordinates Local Futures' Ladakh Project. He represents Local Futures on the core group of the Vikalp Sangam/Alternatives India initiative. He has worked with cultural affirmation and agro-biodiversity projects in campesino communities in a number of countries, and is active in environmental health/anti-toxics work.

Kunzang Deachen

Kunzang is a community organiser supporting young farmers, mindful tourism, and cultural vitality in Ladakh, India. In 2017, she left a job in Delhi and started Infinity Ladakh with a vision to encourage spiritual and physical well-being by promoting yoga, meditation and nature expeditions. Since 2020, she has been coordinating Local Futures’ Ladakh Project, developing an ever-deeper commitment to protecting land-based wisdom and traditional skills in the face of globalising forces. She has become a leader of the localization movement in Ladakh.

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