Towards no-burn agriculture

India’s green revolution led to a shift to high yield rice-wheat systems in its Indo-Gangetic plains. However, this had unintended consequences like resource intensive farming, driven by subsidies on machinery, fertilizers, energy and water. This diminished water supply in the cropped lands and as an adaptive measure, the governments of Punjab and Haryana mandated that the timing of rice planting coincide with the monsoon rains. This shift has left farmers with a short window of about 15 days to harvest rice, dispose of rice residues, and plant the subsequent wheat crop (NAAS 2017).

This practice quickly clears fields for planting, but diminishes soil fertility, requires more groundwater for irrigation, produces substantial seasonal air pollution and releases greenhouse gases. An estimated 23 million tonnes of rice residues are burnt by 2.5 million farmers in northwest India in the field. Particulate air pollution from crop residue burning affects the local population as well as downwind communities, including the 19 million people living in Delhi thereby leading to a public health menace.

A recent report ‘The evergreen revolution: Six ways to empower India’s no-burn agricultural future’ by Tallis H et al states that “new crop residue management systems are needed to drive a profitable, no-burn agricultural system of the future”. The report prepared by University of Minnesota, The Nature Conservancy, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and Borlaug Institute for South Asia presents a solution in the form of the “Happy Seeder” technology, a tractor mounted implement that allows no-till and no-burn planting of wheat into fields mulched with rice crop residue.

Although a crop residue burning ban is in place, and the Happy Seeder technology is tested, profitable and subsidized, it is not yet widely adopted. Through two stakeholder dialogues and a Wicked Econ workshop, six recommendations were put forth that can lead to a no-burn agricultural system for Northwest India in the next five years, setting a precedent for Asian agriculture and beyond. The report recommends the need to strengthen innovation networks to accelerate Happy Seeder adoption. There is a need to specifically, activate farmer-driven learning through innovation tools to increase Happy Seeder adoption and service provision. The business case for the Happy Seeder compared to other crop residue management options needs to be clarified. Also, specifically, develop the business case for farmers and service providers specifying private costs and benefits, and the public policy case that also includes social and environmental metrics.

The report recommends the creation of model business plans for entrepreneurs to provide Happy Seeder services. Specifically, there is a need to tailor plans to agro-economic zones, farm systems and service models; implement an awareness and capacity-building initiative to rapidly scale Happy Seeder adoption; co-design the initiative with key public and private sector institutions.

A problem with the report is that it suggests a particular technology for promotion and this would only perpetuate the paddy crop instead of diversification to other crops. A technology like Happy Seeder is for large farmers mostly and not small holders as custom hiring of machines is not common in India. An earlier report by H S Sidhu et al ‘Development and evaluation of the Turbo Happy Seeder for sowing wheat into heavy rice residues in NW India’ does mention some of its constraints – “adoption has been low to date, despite a 50 percent price subsidy. Constraints to adoption include the low window of operation of the machine (25 days per year), the low machine capacity compared with conventional seed drills, the inability to operate in wet straw, and the lack of straw spreaders on combine harvesters. Removal of subsidies for diesel and electricity (for pumping groundwater) and implementation of the policy banning in-field straw burning would help to accelerate adoption of technology for direct drilling wheat into rice residues”.

There is a need to look for more sustainable options and support government’s enforcement of the ban on residue burning by demonstrating farmer access to cost-e­ffective alternatives.

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One thought on “Towards no-burn agriculture

  1. The recommendations for removal of subsidies on diesel and electricity (for pumping groundwater) should bring about more efficient irrigation water management practices, but I wonder whether implementing the recommendations is politically feasible.

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