Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Finally, India agrees to stop subsidizing food insecurity

As we stand a  few weeks away from Rio+20, sustainable development, it seems, is finally making sense to our government. Yesterday (Tuesday) in the parliament Sharad Pawar, India's union minister for agriculture, announced that his government was ready to reduce subsidy on synthetic fertilizer and instead  divert funds to organic manures, bio-fertilisers, green manures and promotion of organic farming. 

Undoubtedly, this is the best news ever - and perhaps the most sensible remark ever from Sharad Pawar - I have heard in a very long time, as far as agriculture is concerned. To me, it has a clear meaning: India is finally ready to stop subsidizing food insecurity.

Before I explain that, here is what the Pawar said yesterday: “During the first Green Revolution, productivity was increased by 50% with the help of fertilizers. But today balanced fertilizers are needed. Urea is being used by farmers in high quantity which is affecting productivity,”

Clearly, the minister is admitting that pumping billions of rupees  in last few decades to promote the sale of synthetic fertilizer has done the country more damage than good. For example, let us look at Punjab - the state that ushered the green revolution in the '60s (which made India self-sufficient in foodgrain production and has since been the top agricultural producer in India.

Punjab is, by far,  India's highest user of synthetic fertilizers. The state uses around 210 kg of synthetic fertilizer per ha of land, of which 82% is  urea - a nitrogen fertilizer. Now, in 1960, the average crop response to fertiliser use in the state was around 25 kg of grain per kg of fertilizer. But today,  the value has reduced drastically to 8 kg/kg.

This is about reduction in yield. Aside from this, there are other problems: high use of chemical fertilizers requires high level of water consumption. This is the reason why there is a  serious decline in ground water level. Also, micro-nutrient deficiency in soil has led to significant deterioration of the soil. In fact there are reports galore describing how the state is battling with groundwater contamination, water borne diseases and even cancer.

Now, if this is the situation in the country's richest state, imagine the picture in poorer ones - especially those states that are in arid region and are severely water stressed! Imagine the amount of water is used to irrigate the fields after using synthetic fertilizer and the consequences. For example, I am living in Hyderabad (the city that will host the Conference of  Biodiversity this October) - capital of  Andhra Pradesh (AP) state. AP has been experiencing increasing number of droughts, desertification and land degradation (479220 ha of officially declared degraded here). Last year, there was a rain deficit of 8% and right now, water is so scarce, there is a serious rationing; the taps here run only for 1 hour each day, 3 times a week.

In fact, frustrated with lack of water to irrigate, over 20,000 farmers this year have gone on crop holiday in the state - leaving their farms uncultivated. As a result, the state severe food insecurity is looming large over the state now.

And  the state is the second highest user of synthetic fertilizer (about 206 kg per ha) that soaks in precious water by gallons, thus drying up the water table, and deepening the water crisis further.If this isn't enough, the state's land degradation record is continuously increasing.

And how much is the government policy feeding to this excessive use of synthetic fertilizer and soil degradation?

According to the ministry of chemicals and fertilizers, India's   yearly spending on fertilizer subsidy is about INR 1.20 billion. I.20 billion rupees, can you imagine!!! That's almost the total yearly budget allocation (Rs1.45 bn)of a state like Andhra Pradesh!

Now, what could happen if the government stopped pumping this huge amount and instead divert it to promote organic manure? I am sure you can imagine the picture, but here  some pointers to help you:

* Thanks to nitrogen-based synthetic fertizer, agriculture now contributes to 6% of India's total carbon emission (second only to the power sector)
A shift to bio-fertilizer would eventually mean 6% less emission for India. 
*Studies have shown that bio fertilizer gets a better yield. The amount is at least 0.47 ton per ha more than synthetic fertilizer gets 
Now, by 2025, India will have about 1. 500 million people. To ensure food security for this population, the country will need to produce 300 mt of foodgrain  annually which is impossible to do if the current trend of land degradation and water depletion continues.

*Organic farming generates more farm labor. If the govt promotes organic farming, it would also be credited for creating more farm-based jobs which -- a key to deal with increasing rural-urban migration
And in addition to all that, there will be better soil health, more water,  and better health for all, including all those who work on farms.
Yes, there are benefits galore to be reaped. And it seems to me, the government is finally ready to do that. Here's cheering you, Mr Pawar!

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