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    A tech nudge for productivity gains

  • Date : 09 March, 2020

     

    KC Ravi

    Half of the world’s population depends on rice as a major source of nutrition. Rice is considered the world's best, most nutritious, and arguably the most popular staple. Rice cultivation is, therefore, a life-sustaining operation.

    However, rice is also an extremely water-intensive crop. Strikingly, around 24-30 per cent of the world’s available freshwater resources (rivers, lakes and aquifers) are used to irrigate rice. According to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), by 2025, about 15-20 million of the world’s 79 million hectares of irrigated rice lowlands, which provide three-quarters of the world's rice supply, are expected to suffer some degree of water scarcity.

    Globally, Asia is the world’s largest producer as well as consumer of rice. India has the world’s largest area under rice cultivation, and is often criticised for exporting large volumes of water when it produces rice for export. Such water-intensive agriculture practices have the potential to lead to a major water crisis. Yet, the demand for water-intensive crops, including rice, is projected to rise by 38 per cent by 2040, worsening the current crisis.

    Given the compelling need to feed a large population, it is, of course, necessary for Indian farmers to grow yet more rice. However, it is also equally important to incentivise farmers to grow rice sustainably.

    Repeated efforts have been made, by stakeholders in both the public and the private sectors, to introduce modern tools and techniques to improve rice productivity. The adoption of new technologies has helped farmers increase their incomes; additionally, these technologies have also helped reduce the environmental footprint of farming. Despite these demonstrable benefits arising from them, the deployment of agricultural innovations has not matched the requirements.

    The high subsidies announced by the government from time to time have had unintended consequences and have shifted the focus away from the need to develop the market with better products and after-sales services. In India, small landholders, who make up 80 per cent of the farming community, need access to financial and institutional innovations. At the same time, the high pro-rata capital subsidy appears to crowd out innovations and has hindered the development of a non-subsidised market.

    Addressing the overall challenges

    The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) - a set of principles and practices to improve irrigated rice production by changing the conventional management of plants, soil, water and nutrients - has been propagated as one of the ways to enhance rice productivity while reducing the environmental footprint. The primary emphasis has been on adopting techniques that would maximise yield while minimising water consumption.

    These practices include cultivating nutrient-rich, unflooded nurseries, instead of flooded ones; maintaining wider spacing between rice seedlings; and carefully managing water to avoid saturation of rice plant roots. These practices contribute to both fertile soils and healthier plants, supported by improved root growth, and microbial abundance and diversity of soil.

    SRI methods are estimated to have increased yields by over 30 per cent while using 40 per cent less water than conventional methods. Initially developed in Madagascar in the 1980s, the method is now validated in 43 countries. SRI methods and principles were also widely applied to upland rice and other crops such as wheat, finger millet and cane.

    Although SRI's benefits have been widely demonstrated around the world, the potential to achieve such benefits through large-scale application is yet to be exploited. The More Rice with Less Water report recommends that by 2025 major rice-producing countries like India, China, and Indonesia should convert at least 25 per cent of their current rice cultivation to SRI. This would not only significantly reduce rice water use, but also bolster global food security.

    SRI Principles include transplantation of very young seedlings of rice plants — usually only 8-12 days old, with three small leaves, when the fourth leaf is just emerging. The procedure must be done carefully and rapidly with minimum root trauma. Ideally, seedlings should be widely spaced, only one per hill instead of 3-4 together, to prevent root competition and to encourage greater root and canopy growth. It should be in square grid pattern, 25x25 cm or wider, in good soil.

    SRI may, however, require more labour: about 26 per cent in one Madagascar evaluation, and 11 per cent in a Sri Lankan survey.

    GroMore protocol for rice

    Syngenta has developed a technique called GroMore protocol for rice farmers, which comprises a simple crop protection protocol and agronomic know-how. The protocol is designed to help growers develop and protect their rice crops, increase yields and improve quality for each of the four main crop phases.

    The full GroMore protocols cover the four crop stages: Seedling; Vegetative; Reproductive and Ripening. Implementing the full protocols immensely benefits rice farmers: it helps mitigate production risks over seasons, softens the impact of chemistries on beneficial insects and predators as part of integrated pest management; prevents the overuse of any single high-risk chemistry in delaying weed, pest and disease resistance; and avoids residue risks in the grains by not spraying after heading. The GroMore practices help increase yield by more than 20 per cent as compared to local farmer practices.

    In the field of crop protection, Syngenta has advocated that right products be used at the right rate and at the right time, called the critical stage of growth, in the dominant system of production within each production environment. The production system can be either direct-seeded, broadcast-seedling or transplanted rice.  Such an optimised protocol for crop protection is complemented by agronomic requirements for soil preparation, water management, nutrient management, combination harvesting and field maintenance.

    Among its various other initiatives, the Syngenta Foundation has also investigated a range of models designed to improve the farming practices and livelihoods of resource-poor smallholders. One example of that is in Kalahandi in Odisha, where Syngenta has taken the initiative to educate ‘Barefoot Extension Workers’.  Under this programme, the foundation supports a three-month course on modern agricultural techniques. Besides providing specific knowledge about local crops that benefits family farms, the course enables participants to advise their neighbours on improved agronomy, market intelligence and connections to markets.

    Through the Syngenta Foundation, we have worked on Sustainable Intensification and Diversification in the Lowland Rice System in Northwest Cambodia. The core problem that is addressed through such initiatives is low productivity and reduced income in rainfed lowland rice systems which contribute to poor livelihoods and food insecurity.

    While undertaking such initiatives, there are certain parameters that are required to be followed:

    Economic impact. Through on-farm demonstrations, the project connects with smallholder farming communities to grow two short-duration rice crops (where irrigation water is available) and a non-rice crop on residual soil water to increase and diversify their income sources.

    Social impact. Syngenta also works in the target region through Participatory Rural Appraisal following a baseline survey to identify local practices, needs and opportunities. Communities express a strong interest in participating in on-farm trials, which will assist farmers to adopt more sustainable and profitable production practices by benchmarking against the Sustainable Rice Platform Standard.

    Environmental impact. Training smallholder farmers in handling fertilisers will increase the efficiency of fertiliser use and reduce the risks of nutrient pollution on land and in water. Farmers are being trained to identify beneficial and destructive insects/diseases and weeds and to implement integrated pest management practices.

    Mechanisation in rice

    Indian agriculture’s main problem is that a huge labour force is required to prepare fields, plant and harvest followed by long idle periods. At peak time, the available labour is invariably limited; during slack periods, it is abundant. Mechanisation can not only contribute to increase labour demand during harvest and post-harvest operations, but also contribute to seasonal stability of wage rates due to the substantial labour force required to maintain such agricultural machinery.

    The recent past, however, has been a good time for farm mechanisation in India. Advanced agricultural technology has made farmers feel the need for better agricultural machinery and equipment to minimise unit production costs, on the one hand, and improve productivity per unit area, on the other. Thus, farmers in India have begun to realise the need for and the advantages of farm mechanisation.

    Various studies also indicate that mechanized tillage, irrigation and threshing, rand winnowing and fertilizers should be increased to raise paddy yields.

    Dapog method to raise seedlings

    The Dapog method has been adopted by farmers in Andhra Pradesh to raise seedlings. It saves almost half of the time spent on raising seedling. The main merit of this method is that less area - around 25-30 square metres - is needed to raise seedlings for one hectare. The seedlings raised by this method are, however, very delicate and survive only for about two weeks. Besides, the seedlings are thin, slender and short in height. When allowed to remain in the bed, the seedlings may dry after two weeks. The Dapog seedlings will typically be ready for transplanting within 11 to 14 days of sowing.

    Conclusion

    The key to implementing any programme would, however, be the proper communication of the science behind each of these technologies to farmers, besides a realistic choice of both awareness and financial programmes to promote technology adoption. From our experiences at the grassroots level, it is important to constantly communicate the right way to manage the land, use the right solutions and use the right methods.  As Mahatma Gandhi aptly put it: “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

     

    Dr KC Ravi is Chief Sustainability Officer at Syngenta India Ltd.

    (The views expressed in the article are personal.)

     

    This is originally published in The Hindu Businss Line  Year Book on Agriculture, and was released on February 27, 2020 in New Delhi, India

     

 















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EDITOR'S NOTE

19 Jan 2016

Crop insurance scheme brings cheers

In view of the growing volatility in the agriculture sector caused by vagaries of nature as well as market fluctuations, it is heartening to see the new Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY)