Agriculture: Crop Diversification

Crop-specific, sustainable model can be gainful

Governments and policy-makers should develop and implement a region-specific, futuristic crop diversification policy and investment plan. The policy should ensure that the action plan does not remain confined to crop production. The focus should be on the entire range — production, post-harvest management, processing and marketing — of the diversified crops, while minimising the negative impact on natural resources. A quick-fix approach won’t help in achieving sustainable crop diversification.

Crop-specific, sustainable model can be gainful

IN Punjab, crop diversification is often suggested as a solution whenever farmers and planners express concerns about the declining rate of agro-economic growth, depleting water resources, difficulties in the marketing of rice, degrading ecosystem and related issues.

MS Bajwa

IN Punjab, crop diversification is often suggested as a solution whenever farmers and planners express concerns about the declining rate of agro-economic growth, depleting water resources, difficulties in the marketing of rice, degrading ecosystem and related issues. The crop diversification schemes proposed earlier are mainly crop-focused and too generalised for adoption across Punjab, which has five agro-economic zones having variable bio-physical resources. Since concerted efforts (technical, financial, input supply, remunerative market price support, etc.) were not made at any level during all these years to give a practical shape to experts’ recommendations, the area under the rice-wheat system progressively increased. As of now, the generalised crop diversification schemes need to be restructured as the rice-wheat-based economy in Punjab has reached a ‘no win’ stage.

The next agriculture-based, sustainable economic revolution should happen through diversification from the rice-wheat system (mainly weaning farmers off water-guzzling paddy) to the commercial production of high-value food crops and non-foodgrain products such as fruits, vegetables, maize, pulses, oilseeds, soybean, sugarcane, cotton, fodder, etc.

To achieve assured and sustainable high productivity and profitability of the diversified crops, farmers should be encouraged to move beyond the traditional “randomly diverting areas from one crop to another” and adopt a technology-intensive ‘precision crop diversification’ approach. The precision crop diversification plan being proposed involves the adoption of crop-specific, site (soil, water and environment) suitability-based cropping models so as to strike a balance between the production of diversified crops and cropping systems and the conservation of the finite soil and water resources, and in turn, achieve sustainable crop productivity, production efficiency and profitability.

This concept aims at the intensive use of modern agriculture management technologies, information about variabilities in crop response under varying agricultural production potential (assessed on the basis of physical, chemical, biological and hydrological properties) of available soil and water resources and indigenous knowledge for developing comprehensive plans at the state, regional, area and farm levels for the diversification of crops and cropping systems. For instance, diversion of areas from rice should be crop-specific and site suitability-based i.e. we should not stick to rice cultivation in sites/areas/regions having highly permeable sandy and loamy soils, receding water table, saline irrigation water; areas diverted from cotton in south-western districts to rice (after providing adequate drainage, of course); and areas where other farming/cropping systems can give economic returns higher than those of rice. On the other hand, rice should not be replaced by crops such as maize, pulses, most of the fruits and vegetables, etc. in areas having salt-affected soils, high water table/waterlogging, impermeable clayey soils and traditional basmati areas. Similar factors will have to be considered for other crops.

An extensive set-up of soil testing services, land use and soil survey systems, geographic information system and other tools of information technology can guide policy-makers and farmers to precisely develop sustainable crop diversification models at various levels.

The focus should be on: (i) selection of site (soil, water) suitability-based, viable and price/income-competitive crops and their varieties; (ii) adoption of micro-management technologies for efficient soil, water, fertiliser, pesticide and energy use for cost-effective and eco-friendly maximisation of productivity, production efficiency and profitability; (iii) anticipatory adoption of region-specific strategies for guarding farmers against risks in agricultural production; (iv) strengthening of region-specific research and development activities for generating climate-resilient technologies; (v) enhancing the capacity (financial, technological, specialised training, remunerative market) of farmers for achieving year-after-year increase in production of diversified crops and cropping systems.

The crop diversification plans should be formulated in consonance with the market demand (quantity and quality) of products, equitable access to newer climate-resilient technologies, efficient post-harvest management, assured remunerative marketing; development of need-based infrastructure; and socio-economic needs.

Synchronously, strong policy and public-private investment support is needed for minimising post-harvest losses of the diversified products. For this, the policy should link crop diversification plans to: (i) efficient storage systems (stores, warehouses, cold stores, integrated cold-chains, silos, etc.) developed for both non-perishable and perishable products (Punjab has more than 600 cold stores for potato but almost none for fruits, vegetables) at the farm, village, block and regional levels; (ii) agro-processing industries established in rural areas, which can use locally available farm products, crop residue and agricultural waste as raw material for value addition. The establishment of small-scale processing units in villages and modern mega food parks in Fazilka and others at Ladhowal (Ludhiana) and Kapurthala is a step in the right direction. But more such initiatives are needed as farmers are reluctant to switch over from cereal crops to fruits and vegetables due to the risk of possible spoilage (up to 30% fruits and vegetables are wasted/lost) of perishable products.

The government must legally ensure procurement/purchase of all crops at or above the declared MSP, and promote linkages of produce and producers with remunerative markets and super-markets. When market prices of the products are lower than the MSP, the government should step in to compensate farmers through the ‘deficiency price payment’ system.

The governments and policy-makers should develop and implement a region-specific, futuristic crop diversification policy and investment plan. The policy should ensure that the action plan does not remain confined to crop production. The focus should be on the entire range — production, post-harvest management, processing and marketing — of the diversified crops, while minimising the negative impact on natural resources.

It’s time appropriate initiatives are taken for tackling challenges on multiple fronts. A quick-fix approach won’t help in achieving sustainable crop diversification.

The author is former Director of Research, PAU, Ludhiana

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