The Hindu Business Line
Study lists alternatives to straw burning
‘No-till, no-burn wheat-cultivation practices are profitable and cut air pollution’
Lakhs of farmers in Punjab and Haryana who currently burn the rice crop residue to prepare their fields for growing winter wheat crop can make up to 10 to 20 per cent profits if they adopt no-till practices for cultivating wheat, according to a study published in the journal Science last week.
These alternative farming practices could also cut greenhouse gas emission from on-farm activities by as much as 78 per cent and help lower air pollution in the North Indian cities.
The study, to which scientists from a number of institutions including some from India contributed, suggested that the government could help promote widespread adoption of alternative technologies by providing “expanded subsidies for no-burn agriculture equipment.”
Among those participated in the study, led by economist Priya Shyamsundar of the Washington DC-based environmental organisation The Nature Conservancy (TNC), included a team of eminent agricultural and environmental scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Borlaug Institute for South Asia and the University of Minnesota in the US.
The scientists compared the costs and benefits of 10 different land preparation and sowing practices for rice-wheat cropping practised in 80 per cent of 4.1 million hectares of the Indo-Gangetic plains. The direct seeding of wheat into unploughed soil and shredded rice residues was the best option; it raises farmers' profits through higher yields and savings in labour, Crop residue burning continues because of lax implementation of regulations
fuel, and machinery costs.
Since the advent of Green Revolution in the late 1960s, farmers in the region have been resorting to the rice-wheat planting cycle.
“Concerns over groundwater withdrawals have led to a planting cycle that allows the rice crop to benefit from monsoon rains. This cycle creates a short period (nearly 10 to 20 days) to harvest rice, manage
rice crop residue, and plant wheat. Many of the 2.5 million farmers in northwestern India prepare for wheat planting by burning an estimated 23 million tonnes of rice residue in their fields,” said the Science paper.
Though regulations are in place, crop residue burning continues because of implementation challenges and lack of clarity about the profitability of the alternative, noburn farming. Farmers have alternatives, the study showed. To sow wheat directly without ploughing or burning rice straw, farmers need to purchase or rent a tractormounted implement known as the ‘Happy Seeder,’ as well as attach straw shedders to their rice harvesters.
Leaving straw on the soil as a mulch helps capture and retain moisture and also improves soil quality, according to ML Jat, CIMMYT Principal Scientist, cropping systems specialist and a co-author of the study. The study showed that Happy Seeder-based systems are on average 10-20 per cent more profitable than straw burning options. Besides, it avoids air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions
Need for subsidy
“Our study dovetails with 2018 policies put in place by the government of India to stop farmers from burning, which includes a $166 million subsidy to promote mechanisation to manage crop residues within fields,” said Shyamsundar, Lead Economist, Global Science at TNC, and first author of the study, in a statement.
Currently, only a few farmers in Punjab and Haryana sow wheat using the Happy Seeder but manufacturing of the Seeder had increased in recent years. “Less than a quarter of the total subsidy would pay for widespread adoption of the Happy Seeder, if aided by government and NGO support to build farmer awareness and impede burning,” she said.