In an effort to tackle sluggish long-term agricultural growth in India, Prime Minister Modi is calling for a second Green Revolution. One in every two Indians relies on agriculture for livelihood, yet India still has the second highest number of undernourished people in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that our government wants to promote a return to that golden era of the 1970s and 80s, which saw record yields thanks to the technologies made available at the time — we had improved high yielding varieties of rice and wheat, better irrigation, fertilisers, and pesticides.
But the agricultural landscape has changed drastically since this intervention, that a second Green Revolution is going to need an entirely new approach, and an entirely new set of technologies. Climate change is tightening its grip and threatening food supply, not just in India but worldwide. It has never been more important to protect the scarce natural resources that are essential to agriculture.
Focus on precision
A new approach, termed “precision agriculture”, will be key. We now have a wealth of data at our disposal, which, if harnessed appropriately, can help farmers make the most efficient use of vital inputs such as water and fertiliser by applying them in precise amounts. A new mobile phone application called MITRA, for example, is being developed in Tamil Nadu, that will give site-specific recommendations to farmers on the correct fertiliser dose, based on data from the local department of agriculture. It is able to operate offline for farmers in remote areas who do not have internet access. This prevents the farmer from wasting important inputs, and also reduces agriculture’s impact on the environment.
The correct type of fertiliser is, in fact, as important as the correct quantity, which should be an important consideration in any plan for a second Green Revolution in India. Modi’s call to reopen fertiliser plants in Sindri (Jharkhand) and Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh), and open new ones in West Bengal must take into account that India’s soil is diverse, and fertiliser requirements will vary greatly across the country. Just like humans, soils need a balanced diet of the right kind of nutrients in order to be healthy; this is a fact that has been overlooked by government subsidy programmes that only favoured urea for a long time. The right kind of nutrients for a specific soil area needs to be applied, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place for optimal soil health. This is called the 4Rs or nutrient stewardship.
Testing of samples of soil from agricultural fields is vital for achieving nutrient stewardship. India has a vast network of 661 soil testing laboratories including 120 mobile vans operating in 608 districts that can carry out 7.2 million tests annually. Farmers will soon be able to access these reports online. Besides soil-testing, gadgets such as leaf colour charts and optical sensors are becoming popular with farmers to guide the application of urea. This nitrogen fertiliser, if used incorrectly, can affect groundwater reserves and contribute to emissions of the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
Mobile-based applications for farmers will form an important part of the data-driven precision agriculture approach. But it is important to ensure this meets the needs of the farmer. Research carried out by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Mexico, found that these applications need to be interactive; the farmer must have a way of asking questions and giving feedback, either through a helpline or via “field scouts” who visit the villages receiving the mobile-based information. The research also showed that a wider range of issues needs to be tackled in addition to input use, such as how to deal with pests, and new climate-resistant crop varieties. This signals an important area where governments and NGOs can intervene and offer this kind of detailed advice on an ongoing basis. It will also be key to ensure that applications are affordable and accessible.
Another major challenge is the evidence that groundwater stocks are rapidly depleting. Groundwater sustains around 60 per cent of agriculture in India, while 80 per cent of the people living in rural areas use groundwater for their domestic needs. Laser levelling is a technology that can grade an agricultural field to a flat surface by using a laser-guided scraper. Laser levelling has been shown to improve crop yields, reduce labour time spent weeding, and, in particular, reduce water use for irrigation by up to 20-25 per cent.
Although the challenges to bringing a second Green Revolution to India are immense, it is not impossible. India has led the charge before, and yielded phenomenal results. But we must recognise that success will be just as much about using resources efficiently, as about increasing yield. If we consider these two equally, we will succeed.
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