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'Climate change, shrinking land - next decade challenges for agriculture sector'

Dr Ajoy Kumar Singh, Vice Chancellor, Bihar Agriculture University, Sabour

Dr Ajoy Kumar Singh, Vice Chancellor, Bihar Agriculture University, Sabour

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In an interview, Dr Ajoy Kumar Singh, Vice Chancellor, Bihar Agriculture University, Sabour, tells Mohd Mustaquim about the steps taken for second green revolution in the eastern region of India, success stories of maize and makhana cultivation and challenges facing agriculture sector and their way outs

Excerpts

What are the biggest challenges agriculture sector is going to face in the next decade, especially in the eastern region of the country? And what are the way outs?
The growing population coupled with climate change and shrinking land resources are the biggest challenges of agricultural sector in next decades. Nearly 65 percent of the Indian population is dependent upon agriculture and 80 percent of the farmers cultivate less than one hectare landholding. Eastern India, consisting Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand, which is a home of 69.16 million of poor in the country facing several challenges in agriculture sector. At present, the farmers concentrate mainly on crop production which is subjected to high degree of uncertainty in income and employment.

Climate change is a major challenge for agriculture, food security and rural livelihoods for millions of people, affecting more to smallholding farmers. Rural communities face an immediate and ever-growing risk of increased crop failure. Droughts, floods and storms are most commonly occurring phenomenon. Heavy rainfall in upper catchment area due to erratic monsoon pattern and occurrence of cyclone in bay of Bengal, causes flood in river basins of Ganga, Koshi and Mahanadi. The floods in this region cause huge crop loss.

Some of the strategies that could be adopted for combating challenges of Agriculture sector in eastern India are contingent crop planning under drought and flood situation, management of rice-fallow, maintenance of soil cover and organic matter in soil along with chemical fertilisers, adoption of makhana cultivation in cropping and farming system mode, use of integrated farming system (IFS), Synergising livestock with farming, scaling up water productivity, integrated fish farming particularly in water logged area, agroforestry interventions, conservation and sustainable use of floodplain wetlands and appropriate mechanisation.


How has constant erratic monsoon affected the agriculture sector in the eastern states which are known as rice bowl of the country?
In Bihar the average annual rainfall in south western part of the state has showed decreasing trend, while, in other region it is almost same. However, winter rainfall is decreasing all over the state and there is a sharp shift in behavioural pattern of the monsoon. Eastern India has been experiencing specific climate change impacts due to shifting of rainfall pattern. The erratic behaviour of monsoon results in occurrence of drought and flood situation.  

Drastic reduction in rice yield (IET 5786 during the boro seasons of 1999-2000 and 2000-01) was observed when the temperature increased by 1, 2 and 3 degrees Celsius respectively in Gangetic plains of West Bengal. Wheat yield in these regions has been adversely affected due to rise in temperature. Reduction in grain yield under heat stress is frequently occurred due to speedy phenological changes, accelerated leaf senescence, minimal photosynthesis and restriction for starch synthesis. Ultimate factors that impose heat stress resulting yield loss in wheat is extreme temperature by minimising growth period of live plants.

Despite having abundant water farmers in the region irrigate Rabi rice through high-cost diesel pump sets which makes the practice non-profitable. What steps BAU has been taking in this direction?
Farmers are using diesel pump sets for irrigation due to lack of electrical supply system. North-Eastern region of Bihar also known as 'Kosi' region comprises of Saharsa, Madhepura, Supaul, Purnea, Katihar, Darbhanga, Madhubani, and Khagaria districts, is characterised by high water-level during good monsoon years. Large tracts of land become unsuitable for traditional rabi crop due to water logging and flooding. Wheat cultivation is a remote possibility due to water stagnation, thus rice is the only option left. Boro rice has come as a boon to the farmers with the introduction of cold tolerant and short duration photo-insensitive rice varieties. During course of time, increment of input cost mismatched with the income, makes the cultivation less profitable.

After the inception of BAU, Sabour and simultaneous establishment of Bhola Paswan Shastri Agricultural College, Purnea; systematic research work on Makhana cultivation has been initiated. The concerted efforts of Makhana research team of the university has resulted in releasing “Sabour Makhana-1” having yield potential of 32-35 quintal/ha with pop recovery of 55-60 percent. Boro rice (Rabi rice) is shifting toward makhana cultivation. This diversification from high volume low value crop to low volume high value crop may also help increase farmers’ income as well as job opportunity for rural youth.


There has been a trend in Eastern Bihar that farmers are shifting towards maize cultivation. How did this development happen? Also kindly throw some light on how it is impacting the farmers’ incomes.
It is the fact that farmers of Eastern Bihar are shifting from wheat and rice in upland and medium upland to maize cultivation. As per recent estimates, maize is grown in Bihar over an area of 0.75 mha with a production of 2.02 million tonnes. The annual production growth rate, in maize, is much higher, owing to high yields, which had been much more than other major cereals. The increase in acreage is a result of profitability, varietal adaptability to diverse agro-climate conditions and its adoption as winter/Rabi crop in rice belt of India. The increase in production and productivity is attributed to the introduction of single cross hybrids and improved agronomy coupled with industrial demand. As agribusiness, maize processing economies continue to grow and the opportunities for use of maize have increased significantly. Higher productivity of rabi maize is due to less disease and pest incident, better use of sunshine and water as well as nutrient management, lower photo respiration losses due to lower night temperatures.  

The stretch from Purnia, Katihar and Bhagalpur to Madhepura, Saharsa, Khagaria and Samastipur – north of the Ganga and on either side of Kosi – emerged as a corn belt. The export boom also benefited Bihar’s farmers, who saw their price realisations from Rs 400 to Rs 1,200 per quintal between 2005 and 2012.

In 2012-13, then finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee had said that eastern states, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam are going to see the Second Green Revolution. Since the statement was made, what developments have been made in this direction?
The Government of India had launched the strategic initiative ‘Bringing Green Revolution in Eastern India (BGREI) in 2010–11, and so that statement made by the then Finance minister. The programme is still continuing. During the initiation of BGREI, CRRI (now NRRI) Cuttak has been made the nodal agency to implement the programme with the involvement of states. Most important technologies like system of rice intensification, hybrid rice production, green manuring and many other measures have been adopted.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has established Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Hazaribag in Jharkhand, Indian Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology, Ranchi and National Research Centre on Integrated Farming at Motihari in Bihar, to further strengthen the agricultural research for the eastern region. The second GR cell has also been established at the ICAR-Research Complex for Eastern Region, Patna, to coordinate the various researches, developmental and policy issues of the eastern states in collaboration with respective state governments, State Agricultural Universities, ICAR and CGIAR institutes.

Bihar Agricultural University in the centre stage of this region, will have to play a pivotal role in second phase of Green Revolution, what preparations the university has made or done so far?
The second green revolution will come through use of appropriate technology, use of farming system approach, cropping system intensification using cereals, pulses and vegetables and developing high yielding varieties. All these aspects are actively being taken care of by the university. Since the inception of BGREI during 2010-11, university scientists including KVK scientists have been involved in formulation and execution of the development activities. For each district under the jurisdiction of BAU Sabour, a nodal scientist has been assigned to technically monitor the activities.

Soils of Eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains are fertile but deficient in micronutrients (Zn, Fe, cu, Mn, B). BAU is conducting research on site specific nutrient management options, to improve the soil fertility. Medium duration High Yielding Varieties (HYV) of rice and wheat are being developed for the region so as to escape moisture stress and terminal heat stress. Protected cultivation and technologies for producing more from less land and water is being developed and popularised. Similarly, a bunch of initiatives are taken by the university in this direction.

Plant Genetic Resources would play important role in second Green Revolution. Your take on this...
Plant genetic resources provide potential hub for harnessing genes which can be incorporated into the existing crop varieties through breeding or genetic engineering in order to increase crop yield and also to mitigate the adverse impact of climate change. It has been successfully utilised in past for incorporating traits like dwarfism which resulted in high yield through input responsiveness and lodging resistance, led to first green revolution. Thereafter, new challenges like abiotic - drought, submergence and salinity - and biotic stress - fungal, bacterial and insect-pest - are being successfully addressed through potential genetic resources. Greater efforts are needed to conserve the plant diversity and to estimate the full potential of plant genetic resources, and to bring this information to the attention of policy-makers and the general public so that they can be used for bringing second green revolution.

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) has been controversial in India. It’s yet to be applied in food grains. Now, there is a new technology called Genome Editing. How do you see this development?
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are generated through the transgenic introduction of transgenic DNA sequences and they have been controversial. They face many regulatory issues despite the fact that those currently on the market have passed safety tests and are generally considered safe to eat. Genome editing , a new forms of genetic modification, allows scientists to genetically engineer organisms without inserting transgenic DNA. Crops developed through genome editing are similar to crop developed through conventional breeding methods as they do not carry any transgenic genes. Although two crops developed by different, gene-editing and non-GM, methods may possess the same trait, and even the same DNA sequence in the region of interest, this does not make them equivalent in terms of the whole genome.

The efficacy of CRISPR/Cas9 technique to obtain precise genetic modifications makes more difficult to identify a genetically modified organism once outside the lab and also to regulate this organisms in the market. In practice, this is one of the main reasons why risk assessment of GMOs is carried out - in order to determine if any unintended changes have implications for food and environmental safety, so there is need of regulation for safety assessment of genome edited crops too although this issue is yet debatable.

What are the areas of agricultural research BAU is focusing on and how many students are currently studying with the varsity?
The research programmes of BAU are focused on crop improvement, natural resource management, crop protection, social sciences, product development and marketing. The programmes are run by different units and colleges along with collaborations with various international institutes. New research development facility has been created for micro propagation of banana; protected cultivation; bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides production.  

BAU is endeavouring to produce trained and quality human resources in the form of agricultural graduates having knowledge, skills, proficiencies and entrepreneurship abilities in vital areas of agriculture. The total intake capacity at undergraduate level is 410 students while in Masters, it is 100 seats and 34 in Ph.D, totalling an intake of 598 students every years.

How has been the journey of BAU in agricultural research and education and how has the varsity changed the farming landscape in Bihar?
BAU is playing a pivotal role in research, development and technology transfer at field level. Research devotions towards solving problems of agricultural development has resulted in encompassing crop improvement programmes. Grain quality, bio-fortification and improvement for major biotic and abiotic stresses have been attempted to address the needs of ecology; conventional heterosis and molecular breeding approaches are intensively pursued to improve the genetic potential. Addressing the nutritional security and self-sufficiency in pulses, the research activity in chickpea, pigeon peas, mung bean for production and productivity are being carried out.

The varsity got quit success, especially in diversification of farm income of resource poor families by use of IFS, cash crops, mushroom production, beekeeping, backyard poultry, value addition and processing of fruits and vegetables.
 
What makes BAU different from other agriculture universities?
Since last 6 years the varsity has achieved many new heights in the field of education including academic automation, development of e-instructional materials, flipped classroom learning, establishment of CETL, knowledge sharing with national and international institutions, talent pool towards agricultural education, personal branding of students and fellowship for each and every students. In the field of research, we have 236 research project to address the research needs of the regions. The university has released 16 varieties and developed more than 20 technologies for the farmers.

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