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Soil health and nutrient management can lead to higher crop yields

While the agitating farmers are calling for revocation of the recently enacted farm laws, the spotlight has been turned on the farm practices and the problems facing the farmers, particularly subsistence farmers.

Asha Ramachandran | New Delhi | Updated :

The ongoing farmers’ agitation as well as the anticipated stubble burning, both point to an issue of vital importance ~ soil health and nutrient management ~ which is an oft-neglected area that needs urgent corrective action, agriculture and soil scientists have said.

While the agitating farmers are calling for revocation of the recently enacted farm laws, the spotlight has been turned on the farm practices and the problems facing the farmers, particularly subsistence farmers. Of particular importance is the issue of decreasing productivity, brought on mainly by depleting soil fertility. This also leads to production of poor grade grains, which would fetch lower price in the open market.

In this context, stubble burning, which is resorted to as a quick means of preparing the field for the next round of sowing, is highly damaging both to the environment and to the soil.  “The paddy crops are still standing in the fields and we have begun harvesting,” informed Ekta Sukhdev Singh from Kukarikalan village of Punjab over the phone. “We have to begin sowing wheat in December.”

Sukhdev Singh, a member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), agreed that burning stubble leads to a massive loss of natural productive elements, such as micro-organisms and useful worms and insects, which get burnt in the process. Moreover, precious organic material also gets burnt. However, in the absence of any other mechanism, farmers resort to clearing the stubble by burning them.

Environmental scientists have estimated that for every acre of land where paddy straw is burnt, there is a loss of 5.5 kg of nitrogen, 2.3 kg phosphates, 25 kg potassium and about two tonnes of manure. As for emissions, about three tons of carbon dioxide, 120 kg of carbon monoxide, six kg of particulate matter, four kg of sulphur dioxide, and 400 kg of ash are released per acre.

One of the main reasons for burning of crop residue is the short window available to farmers to sow wheat crop. Traditionally, some of the older farmers in Punjab and Haryana recall, very little paddy was sown as it is wheat and not rice that is the staple diet in the region. However, with the advent of Green Revolution and the entry of corporate bodies, rice-wheat crop rotation is now followed, under which specialized short-duration varieties have been introduced. Rice is grown between June and October, followed by wheat from November to April. Any delay in sowing of wheat adversely affects the crop. As farmers get barely 20-25 days between two crops, the easiest solution to clear the field is burning the crop residue instead of the more time-consuming mechanical route.

It is estimated that Punjab produces 20 million tonnes of rice stubble, 80 per cent of which is burnt. According to the TERI report, due to labour shortage during COVID-19, paddy transplantation date was advanced to 10 June this year. However, this is unlikely to contain stubble burning.

Various experts have recommended a holistic approach to tackle this problem. “We should stop blaming the farmers since it will take us nowhere. Instead, we should propose methods that are economically and ecologically desirable,” said eminent agriculture scientist Dr M S Swaminathan in an e-mail response. “As part of the do-ecology response, since the organic matter content of our soils is low, I have recommended that the rice straw, which is being burnt in Punjab and Haryana, should be incorporated in the soil to improve both soil physics and the moisture holding capacity.”

Though India’s Green Revolution is internationally recognized as a major step toward the nation’s food security, this transformation also led to the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources such as soil and water. Way back in 1970, Walter P Falcon, former deputy director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment in the US, talked about the “second-generation problems” of the Green Revolution, warning that indiscriminate use of chemicals and fertilizers would lead to a weakened ecology, thereby threatening long-term sustainability.

However, the Indian farmer has continued the GR practices in the quest of productivity. The resulting deterioration of soil and the depletion and contamination of water has had a direct spin-off on farmer’s productivity and profitability, particularly in northern India. Happily, recent years have seen a growing awareness within the farming community about the importance of soil health and nutrient management in their fields. Scientific practices in agriculture have the capability to result in improved yields, reduction in input costs, and help the environment.

With the emphasis on higher food grain production and climate getting increasingly unpredictable, farmers now recognize that soil health cannot be ignored. Though soil health management has some way to go, particularly in a country like India, it is a viable and sustainable alternative to the present conventional, large-scale agriculture, agriculture experts have noted.

Way forward

Taking a lead in helping tackle the issue, S M Sehgal Foundation, a rural development NGO, along with its CSR partner, has been supporting farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan. Working in the semi-arid regions of Mewat District of Haryana and Alwar District of Rajasthan, the NGO has directly impacted the lives of more than 40,000 people in 60 villages of these districts.

The effort to introduce small-scale farmers to modern agricultural techniques has helped them increase their crop yields and achieve greater financial benefits from farming. To achieve this, the first broad area has been agricultural development work on enhancing soil health, providing agricultural inputs, and giving expert advice to farmers. Farmers were provided with good quality seeds and fertilizers.

Water management, as a core focus of the project, entailed farmers’ training in water conservation, building infrastructure and encouraging water-efficient irrigation techniques. Building check dams as well as promoting the use of drip irrigation facilities helped farmers to a large extent.

The initiative has been acknowledged, appreciated, and has received multiple awards, including the FICCI Water Award in 2013 and the Bhamashah Award of Rajasthan government in 2016 and 2017 in different categories.

However, experts at the Foundation said, “Considering the diversity in physical and moisture conditions prevalent in India, a blanket recommendation for soil management and health is not possible. A region-specific approach is the need of the hour and will go a long way in maintaining a balance between soil health and ecology preservation, ultimately resulting in increases in crop productivity. Educating farmers through outreach programmes is necessary and this can be achieved through regular capacity building and concerted policy efforts.”

The resulting benefits will be a reduction in soil erosion, better soil nutrition, improved water quality, and greater biodiversity. The spin-off will be better crop yields, fulfilling the vision of doubling farmer income, the experts aver.

Issues facing soil health

  • Depleting soil organic matter: Imbalanced use of fertilizers has had a declining effect on soil organic matter
  • Declining soil fertility: Almost 95 per cent of soils in India are deficient in nitrogen and phosphorus. Potassium deficiency is seen in almost 50 percent of fields. Deficiency exists with sulphur and other micronutrients, particularly zinc

Way forward

  • Balanced and integrated use of fertilizers and micronutrients
  • Reduction in inversion tilling: Excess tilling is detrimental to soil health
  • Reduction in synthetic pesticides/insecticides and promoting beneficial organisms
  • Preserving soil moisture