UK, India undertake project to hike crop yields

UK, India undertake project to hike crop yields
UK, India undertake project to hike crop yields

An agricultural and environmental expert highlights some of the ways in which smallholder farmers in India can benefit from international expertise. Indian agriculture has been blighted by a depleting water table and declining productivity for decades. Tens of thousands of Indian farmers recently marched to Parliament to highlight the deepening agrarian crisis. The farmers' plight is also expected to play a key role in the General Elections this year. Everyone agrees that making smallholder farmers' livelihoods sustainable is a priority, so the government has set a target of doubling farmers' incomes by 2022. However, to achieve this, steps need to be taken. These include addressing farmers' use of fertiliser and irrigation systems, improving infrastructure and market access, and forming farmer producer groups with strong farm leaders. Smallholder farms of 1-2 ha of land ought to be able to access national and international supply chains and sell their raw materials to a wide range of food producers. Food businesses are increasingly waking up to this and undertaking projects that aim to help Indian farmers access new markets. Improving crop yield has been a major concern for many years in India. The government has a long-standing policy of subsidising the cost of nitrogen-based fertiliser. This policy has not led, however, to increased crop yields. ADAS, an RSK company, has been collaborating with the University of Cambridge and the National Institute for Agricultural Botany in the UK and with Indian researchers on the Cambridge-India Network in Translational Nitrogen (CINTRIN) project, which aims to find out why. Farmers in India have long received mixed messages or little advice on the use of fertiliser. The result is that they may under- or overapply this important enricher, which results in poor crop yields and negative environmental impacts. Farmers need advice on how fertiliser applications influence yield, so the CINTRIN project hopes to address this by producing more practical information and resources. Researchers on the project in the UK and India have been studying ways to optimise nitrogen fertiliser use to improve yields for wheat, millet and sorghum. Data from this project showing how different nitrogen application rates influence yield will be shared with farmers to help influence their practices. The situation for smallholder farmers in India regarding fertiliser is particularly challenging for several reasons. Many smallholders have moved away from traditional practices such as mixed farming, so no longer have access to beneficial livestock manure for fertilising their crops. This makes them more likely to turn to artificial fertiliser, which is costly and may damage the environment through nitrogen run-off into water supplies. Lack of efficient infrastructure in rural areas is also a major challenge. Smallholder farmers in rural communities that are cut off from a good transport infrastructure suffer from lack of access to markets. They face long distances to collection centres on poor roads and no cold chain to ensure the quality of their crops when they arrive. Many farmers also do not know how to access new buyers and are ignorant of buyers' requirements. Moreover, markets in India are not well developed and farmers do not have the means to seek them out. The result is that if a smallholder finds a buyer for one crop they often stick to this crop and then become completely dependent on this single source of income. Some are encouraged to do so by the promise of “cash” through growing cash crops. This has led to a shift from smallholders growing a selection of crops to monocropping, which stops crop rotation and contributes to reduced soil fertility. It also exposes farmers to greater risk owing to the volatility of crop prices. The increase in monocropping has contributed to the fall in livestock production and the subsequent reduction in the supply of good-quality organic fertiliser. To correct the problem of declining soil fertility, farmers are encouraged to use nitrogen fertiliser, but often apply the wrong amount. Training is urgently needed in this area. Water is a key issue for many Indian farmers, as there is high demand for the available water from both agriculture and a growing population. Climate change is also affecting the availability of water, as changes in rainfall patterns are causing shortfalls in some locations. It is important that water is used efficiently to ensure that there is enough to go around. ADAS has recently worked with a global food manufacturer to understand how the farmers in its supply chain, including those across India, are using water. The project has modelled the efficiency of these practices against optimal irrigation practices. This work has helped to highlight areas of lower efficiency to enable the global food manufacturer to put targeted training programmes for local farmers in place to help them improve their water use efficiency. Water use is an important issue for global food businesses, as they seek to secure a sustainable supply of raw materials in world markets and strive to meet the targets they have set to address the UN's sustainable development goals, which include the efficient use of scarce resources such as water. Farmers in India do not currently have enough information on how to adapt to the new climatic conditions, particularly in relation to field irrigation. The irrigation systems smallholders use are often simply open trenches or pipes, which lead to high evaporation levels. Piped irrigation urgently needs introducing in many areas to prevent such evaporation and target water use to the crops. There has been some government financing for irrigation systems, but the move from open irrigation to pipes is expensive, so needs tackling collaboratively. Partnering with nongovernmental organisations and multinational food producers looking to meet their sustainable development goals can provide a way forward for Indian farmers seeking to improve their irrigation systems. Smallholder farmers in India typically operate individually, as efforts to set up more cooperative structures have been unsuccessful. Farmer producer groups are now being promoted as a positive way to improve efficiency and productivity for smallholder farmers. To be successful, farmer producer groups need strong leaders who can gain the trust of farmers. These groups need ways to access technical knowledge and to set up effective methods of knowledge transfer to extend the benefits of their group to many small farms. Working together and pooling resources can make it easier for farmers to access affordable financing arrangements from banks. Access to financing can support the cost of infrastructural changes such as improved irrigation systems. Some government financing has been forthcoming through subsidies for irrigation systems and there is now a push for loan waivers. Some successful farmer producer groups have been set up in India, but opportunities to scale up this concept are urgently needed to foster a more professional approach to food supply chains. Model farms are a great way of showcasing the benefits of adopting new methods and the importance of integrating the whole value chain. Seeing the benefits of new farming methods at first-hand in a model farm goes a long way to changing farmers' behaviour and helps with knowledge transfer. When farming provides the only family income, farmers are reluctant to take risks, so they take a lot of convincing to change their practices. Model farms can provide an excellent way to persuade farmers of the benefits of new practices and can be linked with the setting up of farmer producer groups. Farmers learn well from other farmers. If they can see the improvements that can be made by changing practices, they are more likely to be convinced. The challenges now are to find the resources and the leaders to scale up these new ideas and to mobilise the hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers across India. Andrew Walker is a Director at ADAS - a UK-based agricultural and environment consultancy working with international food and agrichemical producers.

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