Go green to avoid food crisis

Time to rethink reliance on chemical fertilizers

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | February 14, 2011



The remarkable success story of the “green revolution”, which turned a starving nation into a food sufficient one in a matter of years, can’t be overstated. Ironically, however, one of the key elements of that revolution – extensive use of chemical fertilizer which was subsidised by the government - now threatens to turn that very revolution on its head. In a report that should serve as the wake up call, Greenpeace India, an international environmental group, has issued a grim warning of what awaits us. It says, after studying the impact of government policies on soil health across five states that “indiscriminate chemical fertilizer usage, catalysed by a lenient subsidy policy and neglect of ecological fertilisation is posing a threat to soil health and future food security of the country”. This is an outcome of a study of the situation in five states - Assam, Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab.

Not that the policy makers are unaware of the situation. In fact, acknowledgement of this problem led to the nutrient-based subsidy (NBS) regime, which was introduced last year. NBS is a nutrient-centric subsidy model applicable only to three macro nutrients – nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (P). The Greenpeace report argues, and rightly so, that the NBS regime supports the same old chemical fertilizers, instead of addressing the issue. The answer, clearly, lies in substituting chemical fertilizers with the organic ones about which an overwhelming number of farmers are aware, the study quotes its survey in those states to assert. But the government, though claims to be promoting green manure, is actually doing precious little. The study analyses five major government schemes to show that of Rs 49,980 crore spent on promoting chemical fertilizers in 2009-10, only one-tenth, that is Rs 5,375 crore, was spent on four of the schemes that promoted organic fertilizers. Further analysis of money spent on one such scheme, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY), shows the amount earmarked for organic farming/biofertilizer component was in the range of 2.01-2.64 percent between 2007 and 2010. “States like Punjab, which is suffering from indiscriminate chemical fertilizer usage, have not even spent a single rupee on this component (of RKVY)”, the report says, adding that “thus, we can conclude that there is hardly any support for ecological/organic fertilization”.

Fortunately, it is not too late. “The soil is in very poor health but we have not yet reached the stage where we have lost it completely. Even now farmers can reclaim their soil by shifting away from chemical fertilizers to ecological fertilisation, which will not only fix the problems in their soil but also provide sustained production”, co-author of the report Gopikrishna S R said while releasing the report. His survey shows 96 percent of farmers know that chemical fertilization leads to soil degradation and 98 percent showed willingness to switch to organic fertilizers “if these are subsidised and made easily available”. The report points out how chemical fertilizers cause depletion of water resources, salinity, hard pan formation, increased reliance on inorganic fertilizers, higher cost of cultivation, late showing of rabi crop and degradation of eco-system.

Needless to say, the course correction would require a shift in focus and the Greenpeace suggests several measures the essence of which is to generate and add large quantities of biomas in soil. These suggestions include various initiatives to promote in-situ (on farm) and ex-situ (outside farm) methods of biomas generation, supporting composting techniques, crop rotation or inter-cropping involving legumes, providing bio-fertilizers and farm-made manures and incentives to farmers to maintain proper soil health. The farmers are willing. All that is needed is institutional support, which is not such a tall order really.

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