The ongoing unrest by farmers as well as the planned stubble burning, both point to a problem of vital importance ~ soil health and nutrient management ~ which is an often overlooked area that requires urgent corrective action, said agriculture and soil specialists.
As restless farmers demand the revocation of recently enacted farm laws, the spotlight has been shone on farming practices and the issues facing farmers, especially subsistence farmers. Of particular importance is the issue of decreased productivity, caused mainly by the impoverishment of soil fertility. It also leads to the production of low-quality grain, which would sell for a lower price on the open market.
In this context, stubble burning, which is used to quickly prepare the field for the next sowing cycle, is very damaging to both the environment and the soil. “The rice crops are still standing in the fields and we have started the harvest,” Ekta Sukhdev Singh from Kukarikalan village in Punjab informed by phone. “We have to start sowing the wheat in December.
Sukhdev Singh, member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), agreed that the burning of thatch leads to a massive loss of natural productive elements, such as microorganisms and beneficial worms and insects, which are burned during the process. In addition, valuable organic matter is also burned. However, in the absence of any other mechanism, farmers resort to clearing stubble by burning them.
Environmental scientists have estimated that for every acre of land where paddy straw is burned, there is a loss of 5.5 kg of nitrogen, 2.3 kg of phosphates, 25 kg of potassium and about two tons of manure. In terms of emissions, about three tonnes of carbon dioxide, 120 kg of carbon monoxide, six kg of particulate matter, four kg of sulfur dioxide and 400 kg of ash are released per acre.
One of the main reasons for burning crop residues is the short time farmers have to plant wheat. Traditionally, some of the older farmers in Punjab and Haryana remember that very little rice was sown as it is wheat and not rice that is the staple food in the region. However, with the advent of the Green Revolution and the entry of legal entities, the rice-wheat crop rotation is now followed, under which specialized varieties of short duration have been introduced. Rice is grown between June and October, followed by wheat from November to April. Any delay in sowing wheat harms the harvest. As farmers barely have 20-25 days between crops, the easiest solution to clearing the field is to burn crop residue instead of the longer mechanical route.
The Punjab is estimated to produce 20 million tonnes of rice stubble, 80 percent of which is burned. According to the TERI report, due to the labor shortage during COVID-19, the paddy transplant date has been brought forward to June 10 of this year. However, it is unlikely to contain thatch burning.
Various experts have recommended a holistic approach to tackle this problem. “We should stop blaming the farmers because it will get us nowhere. Instead, we should come up with economically and environmentally desirable methods, ”eminent agricultural scientist Dr MS Swaminathan said in an email response. “As part of the ecology response, given that the organic matter content of our soils is low, I recommended that rice straw, which is burned in Punjab and Haryana, be incorporated into the soil to improve both soil physics and moisture holding capacity.
Although India’s Green Revolution is internationally recognized as a major step towards the country’s food security, this transformation has also led to the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources such as soil and water. In 1970, Walter P Falcon, former deputy director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment in the United States, spoke of the “second generation problems” of the Green Revolution, warning that the indiscriminate use of chemicals and fertilizers would lead to a weakened ecology, thus threatening long-term sustainability.
However, the Indian farmer continued GR practices in the quest for productivity. The resulting soil deterioration and water depletion and contamination have had a direct impact on the productivity and profitability of farmers, especially in northern India. Fortunately, in recent years, the farming community has become increasingly aware of the importance of soil health and nutrient management in their fields. Scientific practices in agriculture have the potential to improve yields, reduce input costs and protect the environment.
With the focus on increased food grain production and the climate becoming increasingly unpredictable, farmers now recognize that healthy soils cannot be ignored. Although soil health management has a long way to go, especially in a country like India, it is a viable and sustainable alternative to today’s large-scale conventional agriculture, experts noted. in agriculture.
Taking the initiative to help solve the problem, the SM Sehgal Foundation, a rural development NGO, along with its CSR partner, supported farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan. Working in the semi-arid regions of Mewat district of Haryana and Alwar district of Rajasthan, the NGO has had a direct impact on the lives of over 40,000 people in 60 villages in these districts.
The effort to introduce small farmers to modern farming techniques has helped them increase their agricultural yields and derive greater financial benefits from farming. To achieve this, the first major area has been agricultural development work on improving soil health, providing agricultural inputs and providing expert advice to farmers. The farmers received good quality seeds and fertilizers.
Water management, as a central focus of the project, involved training farmers in water conservation, building infrastructure and promoting water-efficient irrigation techniques. The construction of retaining dams as well as the promotion of the use of drip irrigation facilities have helped the farmers to a great extent.
The initiative has been recognized, appreciated and received numerous awards, including the FICCI Water Award in 2013 and the Bhamashah Award from the Government of Rajasthan in 2016 and 2017 in different categories.
However, Foundation experts said: “Considering the diversity of physical conditions and moisture prevailing in India, a comprehensive recommendation for soil management and health is not possible. A region-specific approach is the need of the moment and will go a long way in maintaining a balance between soil health and ecological preservation, ultimately resulting in increases in crop productivity. There is a need to educate farmers through awareness programs and this can be achieved through regular capacity building and concerted political efforts.
The resulting benefits will be reduced soil erosion, better soil nutrition, better water quality and greater biodiversity. The payoff will be better crop yields, realizing the vision of doubling farmers’ incomes, experts say.
Soil health issues
- Depletion of soil organic matter: Imbalanced fertilizer use had a decreasing effect on soil organic matter
- Decreased soil fertility: Almost 95 percent of soils in India are deficient in nitrogen and phosphorus. Potassium deficiency is observed in almost 50 percent of the fields. There is a deficiency of sulfur and other micronutrients, especially zinc
- Balanced and integrated use of fertilizers and micronutrients
- Reduction of reverse tillage: Excessive tillage is detrimental to soil health
- Reduction of synthetic pesticides / insecticides and promotion of beneficial organisms
- Preservation of soil moisture