Prioritise resource efficiency over production : The Tribune India

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Prioritise resource efficiency over production

Prioritise resource efficiency over production

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Surinder Kukal

Sustainable farming

NATURAL resources, especially water, soil and air, together constitute a biosphere, which makes agriculture possible. Thus, any depletion and/or degradation of these resources can have a direct negative impact on the survival of humans and animals. In Punjab, agricultural policies have chronically ignored resource cycling, resulting in unsustainable depletion and degradation of these resources. Such a state of affairs has been brought about by subscribing to a tunnel vision-like production-oriented model about five decades ago. The overall outcomes of agriculture cannot be the same as what they were decades ago.

Major transitionary steps are required to reorient our agricultural production. It is essential that various stakeholder groups change their mindset from mere production to production coupled with conservation. However, it is critical that an extreme approach that eliminates chemical input use to pursue an organic production model on a major scale is discouraged. There are risks associated with dissociation from chemical inputs that largely emerge from insufficient trialling & research. Overall, we need to curb excessive use of inputs.

A production-oriented standpoint came into being when ensuring food security and eliminating starvation was prioritised by policy. The intention was to maximise agricultural output without much concern about resource consumption, making farmers’ profitability the sole function of the yield. Free electricity for irrigation water, subsidised fertiliser inputs, technological advances and incentives for adoption of high-yielding varieties along with assured procurement at the minimum support price in the late 1960s ushered in the Green Revolution in Punjab, Haryana and western UP. These incentives culminated in a tremendous growth in rice and wheat productivity and a cropping intensity of 206%. While this approach may be justified in the short term, it is being allowed to continue long after the negative impact on natural resources became evident.

Source: Department of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare, Punjab

A key shift that policymakers can lead and farmers can follow is to prioritise efficiency over production. A resource-efficient model of agriculture seeks to produce the maximum amount of food (or fibre) using the least or optimum quantity of resources, such as water, nutrients, chemicals and fossil fuels. Under this shift, the profitability of the farmers will be governed not only by the yield, but by the input costs as well. Improvements in resource use efficiency can be achieved by relying on Integrated Input Management based on the ‘3-Is’.

Source: Department of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare, Punjab

Integrated water management: An effective irrigation strategy would account for precisely meeting crop water requirements and avoiding nutrient losses. A cropping system-view that accounts for water tradeoffs between different crops is required to achieve optimum water use. An irrigation strategy that seeks to maximise water use efficiency rather than crop yield will always be more profitable in conditions where water and its extraction are monetised for individuals or the state. Thus, to sustain water availability, an integrated approach needs to be adopted for the cropping system as a whole. For paddy-wheat, best practices such as laser land levelling, optimum puddling intensity and irrigation plot size, short-duration varieties, optimum depth and timing of irrigation, intermittent irrigation, stoppage of irrigation at the scheduled time before crop harvest, need-based pre-sowing irrigation for wheat, recycling of paddy straw into the soil through mulching or incorporation, accounting for rainfall between irrigations, etc. need to be practised for optimum use of irrigation water. Moreover, crop-selective breeding needs to focus on water-efficient crop cultivars rather than on higher-yielding cultivars.

Source: Department of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare, Punjab

Integrated nutrient management: Punjab has the highest per unit consumption of chemical fertilisers in the country. In terms of nutrients (N-nitrogen, P-phosphorus and K-potassium), it consumed 254 kg/hectare (ha) in 2021-22 compared to 215 kg/ha five years ago (2017-18). Higher use of chemical fertilisers has led to water quality degradation and loss of soil micro-biodiversity. It is the need of the hour to focus on integrating the use of farmyard manure, green manure and recycling of crop residue to reduce dependence on chemical fertilisers for plant nutrition. Fertilisers and water should be managed together so as to maximise their uptake by the plant and avoid risk of loss to the environment. The integrated nutrient management modules need to be developed holistically so that they account for the complete cropping system rather than individual crops. Policymakers should incentivise building an environment where farmers can comfortably adopt recommended nutrient and irrigation application rates.

Integrated pest management: Pest management modules for individual crops have been successfully developed by Punjab Agricultural University and have stood the test of time. However, these modules need to be revisited for the entire cropping system, including the intervening periods between the two crops. In addition, these modules should also take into consideration the water and nutrient management practices for the crops as pest development and population are influenced by water and nutrients being applied to the crops.

Thus, major transitionary steps are required to reorient our agricultural production. It is essential that various stakeholder groups change their mindset from mere production to production-cum-conservation. While doing this, however, it is critical that an extreme approach that eliminates chemical input use to pursue an organic production model on a major scale is discouraged. There are risks associated with such dissociation from chemical inputs that largely emerge from insufficient trialling and research. Overall, we need to curb excessive use of inputs to get the most bang for our buck.

The author is Member, Punjab Water Regulation & Development Authority, Chandigarh

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