Sustainable agriculture: Going beyond Soil Health Cards
- Agriculture supports roughly half of India’s population and is the key to its food security.
- We have, indeed, avoided the spectre of food shortages, thanks to our farmers increasing production using modern inputs and technology developed by agriculture scientists.
- But there has been a collateral cost to this — in the form of overexploitation of our natural resources, especially soil and water — which has brought issues of sustainability to the fore.
Issues relating to sustainable agriculture
- The first is falling groundwater tables on which the PM himself has recently focussed attention.
- The second is the depleting organic matter content in our soils.
- The third one is a much broader concern of climate change; its impact on monsoon rainfall vagaries or temperature spikes during the cropping season doesn’t require elaboration.
(Note: This article’s focus is limited to the second issue.)
Soil organic carbon (SOC)
- Soil organic carbon (SOC) is extremely important for agriculture.
- About 58% of organic matter mass exists in the form of carbon.
- The percentage of organic matter in the soil can, thus, be estimated by simply multiplying the SOC% by a conversion factor of 1.72 (100/58).
Why is SOC important?
- While farmers may apply urea or di-ammonium phosphate, adequate SOC levels is what makes the nitrogen and phosphorous from these chemical fertilizers bio-available to crops.
- Organic matter is also the source of food for the microorganisms that help increase the porosity and aeration of soils.
- The soil’s moisture holding capacity, too, goes up with higher carbon levels, thereby reducing water runoff.
- Simply put, SOC levels have direct correlation with soil productivity and, by extension, sustainability of agriculture.
How it is linked to Climate Change?
- Atmospheric carbon dioxide is stored in the form of SOC through the process of absorption in crop production and plant residue retention in soil.
- This sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide can, indeed, be a powerful mitigating measure for climate change.
- But in the last four years, based on sample testing results under the Centre’s Soil Health Card Scheme, the picture emerging isn’t all that encouraging.
- SOC levels are found to be very low in most parts of India.
- The soils in temperate climates have better carbon levels. It is quite the opposite in hot and tropical atmospheric areas such as ours, where the soils tend to lose carbon through decomposition (mineralization) of plant residues.
- Rising temperatures from climate change further aggravates the situation.
How to ascertain adequate SOC levels?
- SOC levels matter can be raised through higher retention of farm residue and adding organic matter from outside.
Step I: Proper crop selection
- Plants, we know, take atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert it into food through photosynthesis process.
- Ideally, only crops producing more aboveground and root mass – which contribute to long-term productivity by enhancing soil organic matter – should be grown.
- But farmers, being rational economic agents, will go only for crops that give higher and assured returns, even if in the short run.
- A change in cropping patterns, to ensure high SOC and long-term productivity, will not take place unless the desired alternative crops are remunerative.
- It calls for appropriate policy intervention, including encouragement to set up agri-processing units for such crops, which will, in turn, make it profitable for farmers to grow them.
Step II: Proper retention of farm residues
- Even the aboveground mass remaining after harvesting of the grain and dried stalks needed for fodder should be returned to the soil as much as possible.
- This requires scientific crop residue management.
- Burning of crop stubble has a negative impact not just on environment and human health, but also on soil fertility.
- The crop residue when burnt, instead of raising SOC through mixing with the soil, gets converted into carbon dioxide.
- A strategy focused on both in situ and ex situ management of residue is necessary today.
- Currently, it is being sought to address the issue through subsidised provision of implements such as Happy Seeder, Super-Straw Management System attachment, mulcher and chopper-shredder.
- But all this is mostly in areas closer to the national capital. For sustainable farming and improving soil health, we need all states to pitch in.
Step III: Adding organic matter from external sources
- Use of compost must be promoted.
- There is definitely a case to subsidize building of vermicompost pits or ‘Nadep’ mud/clay brick tanks using money from MGNREGA and other schemes.
- Even urban green waste and manure from sewage treatment plants can be returned to farm soils.
- There is clear evidence that when nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is used in conjunction with farm yard manure, the fertilizer response ratio itself goes up with rising SOC levels.
Step IV: Crop Rotation
- Farmers, however, are hesitant to cultivate pulses for lack of a proper system of government procurement at minimum support prices, unlike that for wheat and paddy.
- In the rice-wheat system, planting of legumes, either as a summer or full replacement crop in the kharif/rabi season, is most needed.
- Legumes have root nodules harbouring rhizobium bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere.
- This nitrogen also helps bind and retain carbon in the soil for a longer time.
- Inclusion of pulses in the public distribution system would go a long way in promoting the cause of soil health as well as nutritional security for our masses.
Step V: Promoting Zero Tillage
- The use of no-till implements deserves a big push. Organic carbon is retained in large soil aggregates.
- Deep ploughing equipment that break these aggregates cause SOC loss, whether through runoff with water or evaporation as carbon dioxide.
- Zero-till seed drills, Happy Seeders and Direct Seeded Rice machines will ensure minimal disturbance of aggregates and less depletion of organic matter.
- We need to launch a comprehensive awareness programme for enhancing the organic matter content of soils, with specified and time-bound targets.
- The very act of monitoring and measuring outcomes will help focus attention on this important aspect.
- Farming should, of course, be profitable. But it must also be sustainable.
‘Uber for tractors’: Government to launch app to aid farmers
A laser-guided land leveller uses technology to accurately flatten a field in a fraction of the time than an oxen-powered scraper. But such Hitech levellers cost at least ₹3 lakh and is beyond the reach of the average small farmer.
A new app described as “Uber for tractors” offers a solution.
- Farmers save precious groundwater and increase productivity by 10 to 15%.
- Provide farmers to have affordable access to cutting-edge technology
- There are now more than 38,000 custom hiring centres (CHCs) across the country, which rent out 2.5 lakh pieces of farm equipment every year. The app connects farmers with these CHCs.
- The app will also create an invaluable database for policy-makers, who can track the use and cost of equipment
[op-ed snap] From Plate to Plough: In the shade of solar trees
Annadata becoming the urjadata – This one policy has the potential to double farmers incomes within a year or two
- Help farmers produce solar power on their lands
- Farmers occupy the largest chunks of land in this country
- This model will be much more inclusive and can help augment their incomes significantly
- Solar Pumps
- Replace all pump-sets, especially diesel ones, with solar pumps
- Excess power generated through solar panels can be purchased by state governments at a price that gives the farmer a good margin over his cost of producing solar power.
- Solar Trees
- Encourage farmers to grow “solar trees” on their lands at a height of about 10-12 feet in a manner that enough sunlight keeps coming to plants below
- The farmer can keep growing two irrigated crops as he has been doing, but the solar tree generates a lot of excess power that can be purchased by the state government
- In one acre you can have 500 solar trees in such a manner that even tractors can move through those and farmers can keep growing their normal two crops. It does not impact their productivity as there is ample sunlight coming from the sides for photosynthesis.
- The power generated under the second variant is multiple times more than under the first variant, and therefore the income augmentation can also be several times more than under the first variant.
What surveys show
- A global survey on this shows that it is being practiced in many countries from Japan to China to Germany, and India is ripe for this
- Mobilizing enough capital to install these solar trees.
- The state should be ready to do the power purchase agreement.
- The economic calculations suggest that farmers can be given Rs one lakh/acre per annum as net income, with a six per cent increase every year for the next 25 years. This can easily double their income.
- He does not have to mobilise capital for solar panels. That is done by other businesses, who also make profit in the process.
- As power consumption per hectare in Indian agriculture is still very low, this holds great promise for several poorer states
[op-ed snap] Making crop insurance work for Indian farmers
Mains Paper 3: Agriculture | e-technology in the aid of farmers
From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:
Prelims level: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)
Mains level: Use of ICT in agriculture and allied activities
Crop damage by changing weather
- In recent months, several places in north India experienced unseasonal dust and thunderstorms, followed by unseasonal rains
- This has cost lives and led to extensive crop damage
- With freak weather events becoming more common, protection of farmers against these risks figures prominently in the government’s agricultural policy
Agriculture sector impact
- Mitigating risk in the agricultural sector has a direct implication for agricultural productivity and farmer welfare
- It also intersects with some of the key sustainable development goals (SDGs), such as ending poverty, achieving food security and curbing hunger
Using technology in agriculture
- The International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) has funded a number of studies that explore the feasibility of using ICTs in the field of agricultural risk mitigation
- A 3ie-funded study conducted by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute demonstrates how to capitalize on the availability of low-cost internet and the rising use of smartphones
- The novel picture-based insurance (PBI) product welds technology with weather index based insurance (WBI)
- Farmers are asked to take pictures from the same site with the same view frame two to three times a week throughout the cropping season. The series of images thus created helps insurance agencies examine the condition of the crops
- Based on the assessment, payments for losses are directly issued to the farmers’ bank accounts
- Additionally, the application also provides customized agricultural advisory to farmers by experts, ensuring continual interaction
- Another study by the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS) examines the PMFBY in Karnataka, which incorporates the use of mobile technology to record and upload the crop-cutting experiments (CCE), a mechanism to determine the overall yield of the village
- The use of ICT is expected to quicken compilation of data, verification and faster settlement of a claim
Other benefits of ICT
- The use of mobile-based technology can also help allied activities
- ICTs can address not only supply side and process-related bottlenecks but also influence behaviour change on the demand side
- For example, ICTs such as the PBI that require farmers to participate may induce farmers to develop a vigilant attitude towards any loss of crop
- Formative and process evaluations of ICT-based programmes, usually done at the beginning of a programme spanning over a few months, can help policymakers take prompt programme-specific decisions
- By identifying various challenges, such evaluations can lead to better programme selection and design that are cost-effective
- Impact evaluations that are based on counterfactuals with a large sample size, and conducted over a longer period, can surely inform scaling up and replicability of such programmes
- And in turn, the resultant socioeconomic impact will help farmers across India
Can’t avoid pesticides, say farm experts
- Context: Parliament’s Standing Committee on Agriculture may have expressed concern at the unscientific and excessive use of pesticides in agriculture that pose a threat both to the environment and human health
- Experts: Judicious use of pesticides, combined with safe agricultural practices, is the only way out as the country’s growing demand for food cannot be met through organic farming
- Need for scientific use: Human health and food safety, both are important, and therefore there is an imperative need for promoting scientific use of pesticides in agriculture
- Organic: Relying entirely on organic farming is not a practical solution, as we need to feed a growing population
- Awareness: Educating the farmers and agriculture labourers for minimizing the use of pesticides and strengthening our agriculture research and extension system is the need of the hour
Parliamentary committee pitches for better pesticide regulation
- Report: Impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on agriculture and allied sectors in the country by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture
- The problems associated with unscientific and excessive use of pesticides have not been addressed properly by the Central and the State governments
- And also, a system for registration of pesticides does not address the systemic deficiency
- Recommended a review of the Insecticides Act, 1968, as the pesticide sector needs better regulation to safeguard the environment and public health
- Insecticides Act, 1968: Regulates import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of insecticides to prevent risk to human beings or animals
- Central Insecticides Board: Constituted under the Insecticides Act
- It is empowered to ban manufacture, import or sale of pesticides if concerns are raised about a threat to public health and safety or any adverse report is received about the toxic effect of any pesticide
- However, there is no provision for periodic scientific evaluation of pesticides used in the country and the Central Insecticides Board doesn’t carry out any research or study on its own
- Also, its advice to the government is based on national and international literature or information available
- Ban: The action for ban of particular pesticides is taken only after receipt of general information on the ban on, or restriction of, particular pesticides in other countries.
- A ban is based on the recommendation of a committee of experts constituted for the purpose
- The present system of registration of pesticides is not robust and does not address manipulation of systemic deficiency
- Absence of an ongoing mechanism for periodic evaluation of the efficacy and toxicity of pesticides is posing danger to the environment and public health
- Govt take steps for the constitution of a pesticides development and regulation authority after parliamentary approval for regulation of the pesticide sector in the country
- It should start discussions with all stakeholders for constitution of such an authority in a time-bound manner