Union Budget 2022-23: Shrinking arable land, expanding urbanisation makes ‘sustainable intensification’ a necessity
Indian agriculture needs a budget that will make it resilient to climate change. This needs to be not only articulated but also backed with outlays. Sustainability depends on the choice of crops, farming practices, and technology options.
The Green Revolution has made the world and India self-sufficient in food. Agricultural scientists like Deepak Pental, the former vice-chancellor of Delhi University say that pre-1900 agriculture would not have supported more than 3.5 billion people with the land currently under cultivation. According to him, the invention of the process in the first decade of the last century to make ammonia (fertiliser) from nitrogen in the air, mechanisation, agrochemicals, and breakthroughs in plant breeding have enabled the world’s farmers to feed the current population of 7.8 billion.
NITI Aayog member Ramesh Chand says between 1965 and 2015, India’s food production expanded by 3.7 times while its population increased by 2.55 times. India is not only self-sufficient, but it is also an agricultural exporter as well. Yet support for green revolution technologies in the country is diminishing. People who should know better think that our country was always able to feed its people with traditional agriculture, forgetting that before the Green Revolution India was dependent on American food aid.
Zero-Budget Natural Farming causes yield reduction
Even the government has been harping on Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) with little evidence in support. In her July 2019 Budget speech, the finance minister said: “We shall go back to basics on one count: Zero Budget Farming.”
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) set up a committee under the chairmanship of the Vice-Chancellor of Telangana State Agricultural University to study the claims made for ZNBF. After its own trials and an extensive review of the literature, its verdict is that ZBNF causes yield reduction.
Traditional agriculture cannot be mainstay of agri policy
The government has also been fascinated by paramparagat or traditional agriculture. The 2016-17 Budget proposed to bring half a million hectares under traditional farming over three years. It has also been hung up on organic farming. These are niches, but they cannot be the mainstay of agricultural policy.
Sustainability, judicious use of fertilisers is key
This does not mean we can continue with agriculture as it is practised. Green revolution technologies are input-intensive. The high-yielding varieties of rice, wheat, maize, and sugarcane respond well to inputs of water and fertiliser to deliver abundant yields. But climate-smart agriculture would require us to get more from less – less land, water, fertiliser, fuel, and crop-protection chemicals.
In her 2020 Budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke of sustainability and the judicious use of chemical fertilisers. That should be the objective.
Shrinking arable land under pressure from rising population and expanding urbanisation makes ‘sustainable intensification’ a necessity. Chemical fertilisers will need to be used, but in a manner that helps soil retain its vitality. Growing a crop of legumes like mungbean after rice and wheat or adding farmyard manure helps. Integrated pest- and disease-management practices will reduce the use of crop-protection chemicals while delaying the onset of resistance to them.
Farmers need to adopt conservation farm practices
Like farmers in advanced countries, our farmers will have to follow Conservation Agriculture (CA) practices. Not tilling the fields or tilling them minimally helps conserve soil moisture, prevents oxidation of organic carbon, and preserves beneficial organisms like earthworms. Averted tractor usage reduces greenhouse gas emissions while saving fuel costs.
Planting the next crop while retaining the previous crop’s stubble and straw in the field to degrade over time, raises the soil’s organic carbon content, improves its texture and water-retention capacity, and creates a favourable ecosystem for beneficial microbes.
Encourage farmers to earn carbon credits
If procurement of paddy at minimum support prices were linked to irrigated water usage per tonne, common rice procurement would shift from dry Punjab to the eastern states which get abundant rainfall and use less groundwater. It might also nudge Punjab farmers to opt for less water-intensive direct seeding, instead of transplanting rice in puddled fields.
Zero-til wheat and direct-seeded rice could even earn farmers carbon credits. Such an exercise is being tried out this year in four districts of Punjab on about 5,000 acres by CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, Mexico) and Grow Indigo of Mahyco, a company based in Jalna, Maharashtra. The farmers will be paid $15 per carbon credit (one tonne of Co2 equivalent). According to CIMMYT’s ML Jat, a farmer would be about to earn four carbon credits (Rs 4,000 plus) per hectare. It is an idea that needs amplification and a budget outlay.
The writer is a senior journalist. Views are personal.