Downside of Punjab style Fertiliser based Farming

  • By K P Prabhakaran Nair
  • December 29 2020
  • Article gives the downside of fertilizer based and the intense monoculture farming followed in Punjab and background of MSP.

A factoid is an item of unreliable information which is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact. This, in a nutshell, explains the conundrum of the “Minimum Support Price” (MSP) on which the farmers strike has been organised in and around New Delhi. The MSP is meant to set a floor below which prices for agricultural commodities do not fall. There are 23 agricultural commodities listed by the central government under the MSP. 


However, almost all Indians, with an agricultural background or not, think that the MSP concerns only wheat and rice, the two pillars on which the heavy chemical fertiliser-centric farming, euphemistically termed the “green revolution” rests. 


That such a heavy chemical fertiliser-centric farming has led to enormous environmental hazards seems to be no one’s concern. Over the last more than half a century, when the green revolution, primarily in its “cradle’, or epicentre, Punjab, and subsequently in Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh took hold, soil degradation has been rampant. Just to give an example, of the total 328.73 million hectares of geographical area in India, more than 120.40 million hectares, about one-third of India’s geographical area, now have degraded soil, mostly in the “green revolution belt.” These soils can be brought back to normal cultivation only with very heavy investments in soil reclamation. 


There has also been enormous ground water depletion, rapid sinking of ground water reservoirs – thanks to the free electricity provided – and pollution – excessive loading of ground water with nitrate ions emanating from unbridled urea use to prop up wheat and rice yield. As a result, the ground water has become non-potable (undrinkable); biodiversity is vanishing and inherent soil fertility is lost with the steep lowering of soil carbon due to mono-cropping of wheat and rice. Then there is the spread of cancer, of which Gurdaspur district in Punjab is a classic example, and has become the “capital” of Indian cancer patients, all thanks to the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and herbicides.


These are all components of the heavy price India has paid for a farming system which (for about a decade and a half) saw farmers harvesting much grain and storing it as “Buffer Stock” in the Food Corporation of India storage, leading often to spoilage of stored grains and making them unsuitable for human consumption. There was huge environmental and human hazard. 


Now, all that has changed. Yields, principally of wheat and rice, despite the application of “recommended” fertiliser doses, have all plateaued or declined. And farmers are in a tizzy. The clamour for continuing the “MSP Syndrome” continues. 


Let me first recount a brief historical background of the MSP concept.


In 1966-67, during the heydays of the green revolution, the concept of MSP was first mooted to incentivise the Punjab farmers to take to the dwarf “miracle” wheat varieties, imported from the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Research in Mexico, CIMMYT (American controlled) that was cross-bred in India, primarily at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. The MSP was fixed at Rs 54/quintal of wheat (i.e., 100 kg). In other words, the aim was not just to multiply the dwarf wheat varieties, with alien blood in India, but also to ensure that Indian farmers grew the dwarf wheat varieties extensively. 


These dwarf wheat varieties succumbed to a host of pests and diseases, like the brown plant hooper menace in rice, devastating entire rice crops, or wheat rust totally wiping out wheat in Punjab, grim reminders that imported “miracle” varieties carrying alien blood are unsuited to Indian conditions. Hence plant breeders here had no option but to cross breed and constantly improve the native varieties. 


A similar situation cropped up with regard to rice, when the International Rice Research Institute, administratively and financially controlled by the Ford Foundation, was established in Manila, Philippines, during President Richard Nixon’s tenure. 


These dwarf wheat and rice varieties were highly fertiliser responsive, especially nitrogenous, like urea, and India at the time had no fertiliser manufacturing factories. Hence, huge quantities of fertilisers were imported from the US, on dollar payment, putting great strain on the Indian economy.


Rice (paddy) was added to the MSP concept later, when the International Rice Research Institute came into the picture. It must be noted that the MSP concept had no legal sanction then, nor has it now. It was an idea mooted by the government in power to spread the dwarf wheat and rice varieties. Anyone in India can challenge this concept in a court of law, even now.


Environmental audit vis-à-vis Indian farming

While discussing MSP and Indian farming, one must refer to the environmental audit. From an environmental point of view, when a urea molecule hydrolyses in soil it lets out a gas called nitrous oxide (N2O), commonly known as “laughing gas”; it stays in the atmosphere for as long as 350 years and contributes substantially (approximately 35%) to global warming. The common belief is that carbon dioxide from industrial activity is the main culprit in global warming. 


However, the idea of N2O contributing to global warming was first suggested by this author as early as 1980, while researching as Senior Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Institute of Plant Nutrition, Justus von Liebig University, Germany.


The fertiliser lobby shot down the idea. Now, however, the Intergovernmental Panel For Climate Control (IPCC) of the United Nations has accepted this idea. These aspects have been discussed at length in, “Combating Global Warming – The Role of Crop Wild Relatives For Food Security” (Springer, Switzerland, 2019). 


Policy-makers in India must zero in on any farm management strategy that reduces N2O emission in farming. The unbridled use of urea to boost wheat and rice yields must be stopped or drastically curtailed. Such a strategy will be resisted by north Indian farmers.


Hence, it would be in order to dis-incentivise farmers from continuously following the wheat-rice rotation, and/or encouraging millets (maize, bajra, ragi) which are nutritionally superior and need much less urea fertiliser compared to wheat or rice. This can be done through the MSP route by substantially enhancing the MSP of the latter crops as compared to wheat or rice.


The Alternative Route

We may also note that the recovery of applied nitrogen in Indian soils is very poor. On average, it is only 30-35 per cent, whereas in temperate soils it can go up to as much as 70-80 per cent. Rice is a kharif crop grown when the south-western monsoon is in full swing, and, of the about 150kg/hectare of nitrogen that is applied (the active nutrient content, not the actual fertiliser quantity, which will be much more) only about 35 per cent is recovered from soil. The rest is simply leached in the rainwater. Hence, precise and economic fertiliser application strategy is very crucial.


Agronomists and soil scientists recommend “split-doses” which has very limited scope in enhancing fertiliser use efficiency. 


However, over three decades of sustained research by this writer in Europe, Africa and Asia, has shown an alternative and a more efficient and economic use of fertilisers, now globally known as “The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept” (See “Intelligent Soil Management For Sustainable Agriculture – The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept”, Springer, 2019). Policy-makers and farmers must think about what is best for the nation, and the government must not succumb to political arm twisting.


First published and here

Receive Site Updates