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How fertilisers are killing Indian agriculture

By Ashish Kothari

The huge government subsidy of Rs 12,000 crore is not only a financial millstone around our neck. By encouraging unrestrained use of fertilisers it is destroying our soils and agriculture

One of India’s biggest economic burdens is the huge government subsidy on synthetic fertilisers. From about Rs 60 crore in 1976-77, it catapulted to around Rs 120,000 crore in 2008-09. Everyone acknowledges this burden, but it is justified in the name of increased agricultural productivity. The subsidy encourages widespread fertiliser use, so much so that from only 0.07 million tonnes (Mt) in 1950-51, consumption in India is now well over 23 Mt!  

What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that this subsidy is not only a financial millstone around our neck, it is also slowly killing off agriculture. This may sound paradoxical, considering that fertilisers have always been revered as an important pillar of the Green Revolution, and that any talk of doing away with the subsidy amounts to political hara-kiri, given the fear (very real) of a massive farmer backlash. 

And yet, more and more farmers themselves are questioning the policy, having experienced a host of problems with unrestricted and sustained fertiliser use. Many agricultural scientists too are voicing doubts over whether fertilisers play a useful role any more… even if they did at some point. Is it time, they say, to consider alternatives that may be more feasible and sustainable from ecological, financial, and other perspectives? 

Destroying soil and water 

A recent report by two Indian and a Spanish scientist puts together evidence of how counterproductive fertilisers have become; the havoc they are playing with India’s soils; and the alternatives that already exist. Dr B C Roy and Professor G N Chattopadhyay of Viswa Bharti’s Institute of Agriculture, and Dr Reyes Tirado of the University of Exeter, have authored ‘Subsidising Food Crisis: Synthetic Fertilisers Lead to Poor Soil and Less Food’, produced by the environmental NGO Greenpeace India (http://www.greenpeace.org/india/press/reports/subsidising-food-crisis). The report argues, on the basis of several scientific studies and solid data, that while fertilisers did raise productivity in the early years of the Green Revolution, they are no longer doing so. In fact, they may be reducing productivity in many areas due to several factors: soil degradation caused by destruction of organic matter, nutrient imbalances, and micro-nutrient deficiencies. 

The report offers a number of scientifically documented examples. In Punjab, which is the highest user of synthetic fertiliser in India, grain output has “not only practically stagnated but also showed a declining trend with fertiliser application” after 1992 (before which it had been consistently rising since the 1960s). A 33-year study at the Central Research Institute for Jute and Allied Fabrics (part of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research) showed that continuous use of synthetic fertiliser on the rice-wheat-jute system resulted in severe soil compacting and loss of organic content and nitrogen. And that switching to organic fertiliser helped revive the soil. 

The report also pegs emissions from nitrogen fertiliser production and use at about 6% of India’s greenhouse gas emissions. And though the authors do not discuss this, another impact of fertiliser use is widespread pollution of water (both surface and ground), which has led to serious eutrophication of freshwater areas -- a process in which lakes start dying as the organisms in them, artificially boosted by nutrients from fertilisers, demand more oxygen than the water can provide. It is reported that at least 11 states in India have nitrate concentrations in their groundwater that are above permissible limits. In marine areas, fertiliser run-off is known to cause ‘algal blooms’ -- an explosion of some algae species that upsets the delicate balance of life, causing a decline in other species. 

The human health impacts of fertiliser pollution are also serious. Another study by Greenpeace India, in Punjab, found that most wells were contaminated with nitrates; 20% of all sampled wells had nitrate levels above the safety limit of 50 mg per litre as established by the World Health Organisation (http://www.greenpeace.org/india/press/releases/threatening-levels-of-chemical). Such high levels are known to cause diseases like blue baby syndrome in infants and cancers of the digestive tract, bladder and ovaries. The Indian Medical Association joined Greenpeace recently in expressing concern over this form of pollution. Fertilisers also release heavy metals and cause air pollution of various kinds. 

The authors of ‘Subsidising Food Crisis’ also highlight the inequities involved in the subsidy. Over one-third of the subsidy goes to the fertiliser industry; the major farmer beneficiaries are those in richer irrigated areas compared to poorer, dryland areas. 

What are the alternatives?  

Although the government has known about the impact of fertilisers for some time, the argument has always been that there is no alternative and that fertilisers are a necessary evil. But is this true? The authors think not. They say fertilising the soil with organic manure and vermicompost, and growing nitrogen-fixing cover crops (for example, legumes) could enable the country to completely switch over to organic fertiliser. In doing so, it would save up to 60% of the subsidy (around Rs 70,000 crore!), the rest going into the production of organic inputs. But is so much organic fertiliser available? The authors cite a study showing that the amount of nitrogen that could be recovered from organic waste (which otherwise ends up polluting our water) could equal all the synthetic nitrogen being used annually. And what about productivity? Again, studies are cited of sugarcane in Maharashtra and fruits and spices in Meghalaya where organic farming has proved more productive and profitable than chemical-based cultivation. The National Centre for Organic Farming has demonstrated that using organic fertilisers for rice, wheat and maize yields, on average, about 10% more produce than with synthetic fertilisers. 

While the report’s authors have spelt out clear alternatives to the problem of fertilising India’s agricultural lands, it is important to consider this against the comprehensive paradigm shift that India’s agriculture will have to go through. This is crucial if farming is to become ecologically sustainable as also provide livelihood security to several hundred million small farmers. Organic, biologically diverse agriculture that integrates cultivation of crops with maintenance of livestock and/or fisheries, with seeds, water, and other inputs that farmers can generate locally, is the only model that will fit the bill. Such farming will need to be in tune with the diversity of ecological situations that exist across India, rather than an attempt to replicate one solution everywhere. For instance, dryland farming, still the mainstay of a massive section of farmers, is viable only if respectful of local ecological limits and built on the knowledge of communities that have developed sophisticated systems of multiple cropping and livestock management. Extending large-scale surface irrigation to such areas may increase production temporarily, but in the long run will cause significant damage in terms of waterlogging, salinisation, decline in biodiversity, and other impacts that ultimately reduce productivity and viability. 

These are not fanciful ideas with no empirical grounding. Across the country, initiatives by farmer groups, NGOs, and some enterprising government officials and scientists are demonstrating the feasibility of such approaches. 

In the low-rainfall region of Zaheerabad, Andhra Pradesh, dalit women have brought about an agricultural revolution in 75 villages. Mobilised under the banner of the Deccan Development Society (www.ddsindia.com), an organisation set up with the purpose of promoting sustainable agriculture, women’s sanghas (assemblies) have used a mix of organic farming and pastoralism, traditional seed diversity, economical water use, community grain reserves, links with consumers, including through the public distribution system and an organic restaurant, celebration of biodiversity as part of cultural events and festivals, and outreach through locally generated media. This has helped transform a situation of chronic food shortages, unemployment, and dependence on government, particularly amongst dalit women and other underprivileged sections, into one of self-sufficiency, dignity, and control over their lives. 

In 220 villages of Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh, the Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS) is helping the move towards sustainable agriculture (using no chemical fertilisers, and phasing out pesticides), livestock improvement, panchayat and women’s empowerment, micro-finance, and other developmental inputs. As a result, outgoing migration has dropped by 80% and many families have even returned to their villages. Forty-five thousand acres in 34 villages are covered under watershed management. The experience gained is transmitted through the Baba Amte Centre for People’s Empowerment, and SPS now reaches out to 72 districts in several states of central India, benefiting over 1 million acres. Additionally, the experience has been used to influence state and national policy, including advocacy for the right to food, a better public distribution system, and inputs to the framing of guidelines for watershed management (http://www.dorabjitatatrust.org/NGO_profiles/pdf/18%20SPS.pdf; www.samprag.org).  

In Karnataka, the NGO Green Foundation works with dryland farmers in over 60 villages to sustain or revive organic practices that maintain soil fertility while producing healthy crops (http://www.greenconserve.com/). It too reports a host of positive impacts in situations where farmers, once sold on the use of chemicals, have switched to organic cultivation.

In the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, the Beej Bachao Andolan, started by local farmers, is attempting to restore the area’s enormous agricultural biodiversity and revive sustainable farming. Such initiatives, along with livestock and inland or coastal fisheries, are slowly but surely spreading to other Indian states. 

New agricultural paradigms 

Important principles and strategies for the future of India’s agriculture that can be distilled from the many grassroots initiatives include the following: 

  • Localised production or availability of basic inputs including seeds/livestock/fingerlings, manure, water, fodder, technologies, knowledge, and, where necessary, credit; this requires a focus on production systems that are in tune with local agro-ecological conditions, especially soil types, climate, and water availability.
  • Integration of crops, livestock, fodder, and/or fish production, and of forest conservation and use to optimise production from a given landscape; this necessitates greater coordination amongst farmers and amongst various government departments. And, in many places, ecological restoration through watershed management, regeneration of forests, etc.
  • Financial or technological assistance to farmers to switch from chemical-dependent farming to organic farming, including by converting current fertiliser subsidies into credit for organic farming.
  • Linking the public distribution system and other food security schemes such as the midday meals scheme and food-for-work scheme to locally produced food rather than obtaining grain from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away; this may necessitate building up relations between clusters of villages as a single village may not have adequate production to supply.
  • Building on local agricultural, forestry, and aquatic produce to generate additional livelihoods through village-based industry; prioritising local markets and feeding distant markets after local needs are satisfied.
  • Feeding agriculture’s energy needs through decentralised, renewable energy sources.
  • Facilitating empowerment of the most marginalised, including landless and marginal farmers, and women, through micro-credit, cooperatives, self-help groups, etc.
  • Encouraging urban agriculture, including rooftop and backyard production, and common plots in low-income colonies to meet basic household needs.
  • Decentralised R&D in the form of joint, on-field programmes by farmers and modern agricultural scientists, with priorities defined by the former.
  • Facilitating direct producer-consumer links amongst villages and between villages and cities, with programmes that create awareness about each other’s needs and build networks of trust that could take up the task of local ‘certification’ of organic, healthy produce.

This shift in focus has been a priority for many years and has been demanded by several groups including small farmer movements. For instance in 2007, several dozen civil society organisations that came together as a Agri-Vision Coalition wrote the prime minister a memorandum entitled ‘Holistic Ecological Agriculture Agenda for India’s Eleventh Plan, and the National Development Council Meeting on Agriculture’ (http://www.petitiononline.com/agvision/petition.html). This contained a number of the above points, as well as several others. But still the dominant agricultural policy remains heavily biased towards chemical-dependent, intensive-input-based farming that fuels the backbreaking dependence of farmers on external markets and government agencies, pushing them further into the hands of private corporations, greedy moneylenders and local officials, none of whom is really thinking of the farmer or of food security for the masses. 

By powerfully highlighting the damage brought on by fertilisers, and showing that alternatives are possible the authors of ‘Subsidising Food Crisis’ have done India’s future a considerable service. One hopes that those beginning to think of the country’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan, to be put in place in 2012, will pay it some heed. 

Infochange News & Features, December 2009