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Instead of burning farm residue that leads to massive air pollution in northern India every autumn, farmers in the country’s breadbasket can boost profits by 20% by using the mechanised farming technique 

A farmer uses a tractor fitted with a Happy Seeder (Photo by Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam / CIMMYT)

A farmer uses a tractor fitted with a Happy Seeder (Photo by Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam / CIMMYT)

A mechanised technique to get rid of farm residue without burning it and sow the next crop can boost agricultural income in India’s breadbasket, new research has found. More widespread us of this technique will also help reduce the suffocating air pollution that northern parts of the country suffer every autumn, the study said.

The burning of crop residue in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, responsible for severe air pollution in Delhi and northern India in October and November, is declining, but farmers need cheap and effective alternatives for it to stop altogether. See: North India chokes as farmers set stubble ablaze

Latest research indicates that using the Happy Seeder agriculture technology to manage rice residue has the potential of increasing profits by INR 6000-11,500 (USD 84-160) per hectare for the average farmer. The Happy Seeder is a tractor-mounted machine that cuts and lifts rice straw, sows wheat and deposits the straw over the sown area as mulch.

The paper — Fields on fire: Alternatives to crop residue burning in India — published in the August 9 issue of the Science journal, evaluated public and private costs and benefits of 10 alternate farming practices to manage rice residue, including burning and non-burning options. The Happy Seeder-based systems emerged as the most profitable and scalable residue management practice as they are, on average, 10-20% more profitable than burning.

Reducing carbon footprint

This option also has the largest potential to reduce the environmental footprint of farm activities, as it would eliminate air pollution and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions per hectare by more than 78%, relative to all burning options, the researchers said. The study was undertaken by 29 Indian and international researchers from the Nature Conservancy, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), the University of Minnesota, and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), besides others.

The burning of crop stubble is a matter of serious concern because it is a significant source of atmospheric particulate matter and greenhouses gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and methane, which have short- and long-term impacts on global climate systems, according to a NASA report on biomass burning.

The government of India’s 2018 operational guidelines for on-site farm residue management for Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh says that an estimated 23 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt in these states every year, shooting up the levels of carbon dioxide by 70%, carbon monoxide by 7% and nitrogen dioxide by 2.1%. It also says that burning of one tonne of rice straw releases 3 kg of particulate matter, 60 kg of carbon monoxide, 1,460 kg of carbon dioxide, 199 kg of ash and 2 kg of sulphur dioxide.

A farmer in Punjab’s Sangrur district torching his 4-acre field covered with rice stubble in 2018 (Photo by Prasanna Mohanty)

A farmer in Punjab’s Sangrur district torching his 4-acre field covered with rice stubble in 2018 (Photo by Prasanna Mohanty)

The residue burning started in the 1980s for both wheat and rice stalks with mechanisation of harvesting. Harvesting machines leave taller stubbles of 1-2 ft compared with less than 6 inches when the crops are manually harvested. In the national capital region, about half the air pollution in autumn is attributed to farm fires, when air quality level is 20 times higher than the safe threshold defined by WHO. Residue burning has enormous impacts on human health, soil health, the economy and climate change.

Although the current concern of policymakers and the media over air pollution due to the annual burning in autumn is focussed on New Delhi and the NCR, a study released in June 2018 said the threat is spreading to other parts of India as well.

Using NASA images and evidence on the ground, the study says there’s “an increasing impact of CRB over the eastern parts of the Indo-Gangetic Basin and also over parts of central and southern India.” The increasing trends of finer black carbon particles and greenhouse gases have also accelerated since 2010, it said. See: Air quality worsens in India, Delhi improves

“Despite its drawbacks, a key reason why burning continues in northwest India is the perception that profitable alternatives do not exist. Our analysis demonstrates that the Happy Seeder is a profitable solution that could be scaled up for adoption among the 2.5 million farmers involved in the rice-wheat cropping cycle in northwest India, thereby completely eliminating the need to burn,” said Priya Shyamsundar, Lead Economist at Nature Conservancy and one of the authors of the paper. “It can also lower agriculture’s contribution to India’s GHG emissions, while adding to the goal of doubling farmers income.”

Emergency response

The Indian government has been aggressively promoting the use of this technique in the past few years in an emergency response to the heavy air pollution during the crop burning season that starts in October and continues for about two months. “Within one year of our dedicated action using about USD 75 million under the central sector scheme…, we could reach 0.8 million hectares of adoption of Happy Seeder and zero tillage technology in the north western states of India,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of ICAR. “Considering the findings of the Science article as well as reports from thousands of participatory validation trials, our efforts have resulted in an additional direct farmer benefit of USD 131 million, compared to a burning option.”

The federal government’s 2018 subsidy for in-situ rice residue management has partly addressed a major financial barrier for farmers, which has resulted in an increase in the use of Happy Seeders. However, the study found that other barriers still exist, such as lack of knowledge of profitable no-burn solutions and impacts of burning, uncertainty about new technologies and burning ban implementation, and constraints in the supply-chain and rental markets.

The paper states that NGOs, research organisations and universities can support the government in addressing these barriers through farmer communication campaigns, social nudging through trusted networks and demonstration and training. The private sector also has a critical role to play in increasing manufacturing and machinery rentals.


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