This year is an eventful one, for who could have thought that our protective guards will be ravaged and the Amazon rainforest will be on fire. This is, however, not an isolated incident – burning forests to create land for agriculture is an age-old practice. Slash and burn agriculture is a widely used method of growing food in which wild or forested land is clear cut and any remaining vegetation burned. The resulting layer of ash is said to provide the newly-cleared land with a nutrient-rich layer to help fertilise crops. Every year, people in north and west India battle smog and poor air quality only because farmers in the region opt for burning the stubble instead of a more scientific methods to do away with them because burning is a more cost-effective method. Such unscientific methods are doing more harm to agriculture on a whole than anything else.
Right crop for the available soil type
India has various types of soil ranging from the fertile alluvial of the Indo-Gangetic plains to the black and red soils of the Deccan plateau. In the state of Tamil Nadu, one may observe that the fields in the districts of Salem and Periyar are red while those in Coimbatore and Ramanathapuram are black. Each type of soil benefits different types of crops through their unique physical, chemical and biological properties. Alluvial soil is a fertile soil rich in potassium and is suitable for agriculture, especially for crops such as paddy, sugarcane and plantain. Red soil has high iron content and is fit for crops like red gram, Bengal gram, green gram, groundnut and castor seed. Black soil is rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium but has poor nitrogen content. Crops like cotton, tobacco, chilly, oil seeds, jowar, ragi and maize grow well in it. Sandy soil is low in nutrient content but is useful for growing trees such as coconut, cashew and casuarinas in areas with high rainfall. However, with better irrigation and treated seeds, factors like these have seemingly become irrelevant to the farmers. To force a land fit for jowar, ragi to produce paddy by using fertilisers indiscriminately is not only a waste of resources, it adversely impacts the soil health and may affect the future growth of crops too.
Repeating same crop rotation over years
We must have come across the advertisements on family planning by the government that emphasises the need of maintaining a gap of at least three years so that the mother regains her vitalities and her body is ready for the next child. Traditionally, farmers chose to cultivate a number of crops on a piece of land and even left it uncultivated so as to allow it regains the fertility. This crop rotation farming helped soil in regaining the nutrition that it lost in the previous cycle. Both land-use change and intensification of agricultural production on existing crop-lands can have significant adverse impacts on soil, but these impacts depend critically on farming techniques. Inappropriate cultivation practices can reduce soil organic matter and increase soil erosion by removing permanent soil cover. The removal of plant residues can reduce soil nutrient contents and increase greenhouse gas emissions through losses of soil carbon. However, fallow land is more of a compulsion today than a choice – keeping land uncultivated means financial loss, something farmers can ill-afford at a juncture when they are battling poor prices.
Agrochemicals is not be the culprit, lack of knowledge is
The variety of crops cultivated earlier is gone as, in pursuit of more income, farmers cultivate only those crops that fetches good price. As a result, a piece of land is used for cultivating the same crop over and over for years. Farmers also choose specific crops, also known as cash crops, over food crops in order to fetch a better price for their produce. However, their sustained cultivation costs the soil health as it naturally drains the soil of its fertility. To cope with it, farmers use fertilisers, without much knowledge of what they need and how much. This jeopardises the soil health all the more. To counter this, it is more important that the farmers are aware of the right kind of agrochemicals needed in their fields and how much of it they need. Agrochemicals have ushered in the ‘Green Revolution’ in India that turned the country from a food-deficient to a foodgrain-surplus country.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, use of technical grade pesticide in India has gone up from 47.02 thousand tonnes in 2001—02 to 52.75 thousand tonnes in 2016 – 17. Schemes like soil health card and various irrigation projects have only added to India’s capacity of remaining self-sufficient in terms of its food requirement. However, the flip sides are real that can be countered only with education and not knee-jerk reactions. Insecticides India has been educating farmers on the right usage of agrochemicals for years now with tangible results and would be happy to extend help others who may need it.
(Rajesh Aggarwal is the Managing Director of Insecticides India. The views expressed in the article are author’s own.)