Monday, October 14th, 2019
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India’s crusade for “Grow Safe Food”

 - Sunil Kumar Misra -

AAAAAInitiative

Growing public awareness everywhere, about health hazards associated with the food they consume which accompany toxic levels of pesticide residues, is pushing governments for a long time to intervene and bring reforms on the responsible use of these harmful chemicals in agriculture industry.  Incorrect and excessive use of pesticides can give rise to accumulation of pesticide residues at harmful level in food. This also exposes to farmers to serious health risks and has negative consequences for the environment and for crop yields as well. Often, less than one percent of pesticide applied actually reaches the target pest, and the rest contaminate the food, air, soil and waterways.

Indian government is to be applauded for “Grow Safe Food” campaign. This drive is built on the judicious and responsible use of pesticides and therefore reduction in level of harmful chemical residues in the food. The personal leadership on this issue by Mr Radha Mohan Singh, the Union Minister for Agriculture, is much applauded and truly a welcome move. However, we need to see an increasing awareness through engagement of all stakeholders on this issue. Development of comprehensive strategic plan and its successful implementation is critical to the success of this drive and thus ensuring rights of Indian citizens for access to safe food.

Background

It is generally a misconception that pests in crop production are introduced or induced externally only. Pests may be naturally present in the soil or may be introduced through air, water, cultural practices, infected seeds or planting materials. In most cases, pests and accompanying species such as predators, parasites, decomposers, competitors and pollinators occur naturally as part of the natural ecosystem and perform a wide range of natural processes, thereupon contributing to keeping the agro-ecosystem in a natural balance.

Harmful fungi and bacteria that parasitize crops are generally present in all native soils. These destructive pests are usually quite genetically specialized for attack on plant tissue. However, these pests are considered to be weak competitors against naturally occurring soil inhabiting beneficial microorganisms and are less able to withstand survival pressures which occur in the balanced agro-ecosystem. Largely, the more highly developed the parasitic activity of a given pest is, the more able this pest is to attack a vigorously growing plant and the less able that pest is to survive in natural agro-ecosystem.

Imbalances due to indiscriminate use of heavily subsidised urea can result in changes that can cause one or many types of soil pests to become temporarily dominant over the others and consequently a breakdown of natural cycle occurs, thus creating an imbalance in the agro-ecosystem. This imbalance in agro ecosystem may lead to an upsurge, and outbreak of soil borne pathogenic pests such as fungi, bacteria, nematodes and accompanying species. These pests in turn, can contribute to the weakening of the immune system leading to a loss of the natural defense mechanism of a plants. Furthermore this makes crops more susceptible to the diseases and thus increasing the potential of losing crop yields to these pests. These soil borne pests, most of the time remain unnoticed under normal situations and may severely reduce crop yield potential in Indian agriculture farming climate.

Farmers in India due to lack of awareness often respond by seeking extra protection by over-using  and sometimes wrong pesticide and thereby impairing the natural crop ecosystem balance further. This disrupts the natural balance of the agro-ecosystem and therefore population of predators (natural enemy to harmful pests), beneficial microorganisms and thereby causing outbreaks of secondary pests. This vicious cycle repeats in intensive farming culture. This could also contribute and lead to the “evolution of resistance to pesticides” as pests become resistant to pesticide applied. This leads to the development and application of another type of pesticide but with little success in reducing crop losses to pests. As a result, an upsurge in pest population and frequent outbreaks, caused by inappropriate use of chemical pesticides, has become more regular.

Approach

It is obvious that there is a growing public demand to reduce the use of pesticides as much as possible and it is unlikely that farmers can produce crops economically in commercial farming without using chemical pesticides. A better approach is to create awareness about soil health “Save Your Soils” with a strong focus on balanced nutrition and judicious and responsible use of chemical pesticides, with an emphasis on those that are selective, and target specific.

Outdated National Fertiliser Policy & Fertiliser Control Order

India is blessed to have second highest percentage of total arable land in the world and as much as two- third of India’s population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. Current food production at current level of productivity in India is more than enough to feed India’s population, however, factoring in population growth, declining soil health, vulnerability to climate change and highly unsustainable subsidised fertiliser regime will severely limit India’s capability to meet the food demand in near future.

It is expected that by 2050, India is likely to be home to approximately 1.6 billion people.  Population growth, food, urbanisation and water demand, creates significant challenges for policymakers, as the sustainability of India’s food system and the economy itself will depend on subsidy regime and resource use efficiency in the agricultural sector.

Further to this, Agricultural industry in India is already  going through massive transformation and facing the challenges of climate change, soil degradation, compaction, nitrification and acidification leading to overall decline in agricultural productivity levels.

The Green Revolution in the late 1960s was called India’s miracle in agriculture and saw an influx of imported fertilisers, high-yielding hybrid seeds and pesticides. As a result, India’s agricultural productivity exploded, securing food self-sufficiency by the late 1970s. Since then however, crop yields all over India have been in decline consistently, mainly due to slow and steady deterioration in soil health by the indiscriminate use of heavily imbalanced and subsidised fertilisers. It was the time when India adopted subsidy program on fertiliser, the country relied heavily on imported food, and subsidies were seen as a way to increase food productivity.

This creates significant challenges for policymakers, as the sustainability of India’s food system and the economy itself will depend on subsidy regime and resource use efficiency in the agricultural sector.

Subsidising fertilisers is too narrow a solution to the challenges India’s agriculture is facing currently.  A subsidy alone is not going to solve the problem and subsidies can also eat up large shares of government agricultural budgets and can be detrimental to longer-term strategic investment decisions.

For Example, subsidised Urea costs substantially less due to subsidies given by the government, than other fertilisers and farmers overuse this nitrogen rich material indiscriminately, leaving soil system out of balance and therefore unproductive. The setback of the Green Revolution matters enormously to India's sustainable agriculture. India has been providing farmers with heavily subsidised fertilisers for several decades and its subsidy bill on fertilisers is on the rise and currently estimated to be close to 10 to 15 billion dollar against 760 million dollars in 1976, which is highly unsustainable and at a very high opportunity cost to India. India will most likely struggle to realise its vision, unless it finds the way forward for restoring the sustainable soil health and to reinvigorate its agricultural sector, with a major focus on increase in productivity, on which the majority of its population still rely for a living. India with its current population of nearly 1.25 billion, under a very strong and visionary leadership of Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, has positioned itself as a driver of regional and global growth and also as a significant commercial power in coming decades It is a high time and certainly a right time when India will need a strategy and solutions to reducing its ever increasing and unsustainable subsidy bills on fertilisers that too with no negative consequences to farmer’s income.

Massive cuts in fertiliser subsidies are possible by reducing imported or domestically produced chemical fertilisers inputs and any savings thus made can be used in infrastructure development which India need the most in consistency with Modi government’s Vision and Mission. Besides this, reduction in usage of urea can provide opportunity to use domestic natural gas elsewhere that is being used to produce urea. Nevertheless, subsidies are politically very appealing and therefore an astute strategic plan is required for smooth and effective transition.

Novel research, development of new fertiliser technologies and the practical application of a new way of farming with a strong focus on soil health is essential for the sustainability and economic viability of the agriculture industry in India.

It is important and vital to revisit India’s outdated National Fertiliser Policy and Fertiliser Control Order (FCO) at the earliest as these documents could have been utopian for those days and compatible to conventional farming of late 1960’s but now, seems to be a stumble block for contemporary Indian agricultural climate.

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Sunil Kumar Misra,Author Details:
Sunil Kumar Misra
Director and CEO Organisation: Langley Fertilizers, a strategic Business Unit of Sunpalm Australia
Address:          36 Paramount Drive, Wangara, Perth, Western Australia
Contact:  +61-8- 93021633 (Office)    +61(0) 405 145 108 (Mobile)  e-mail:    sunil@sunpalmaustralia.com.au
* Disclaimer : The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of INVC NEWS

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