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Rising soil infertility: fighting an uphill battle

Flawed government policies have led to farmers using large amounts of subsidized urea, significantly reducing yield
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First Published: Wed, Jul 10 2013. 10 22 PM IST
An inductively coupled plasma spectrometer machine that can test a soil sample for all its micro and macro nutrients within 1-1.25 minutes. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
An inductively coupled plasma spectrometer machine that can test a soil sample for all its micro and macro nutrients within 1-1.25 minutes. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Updated: Wed, Jul 10 2013. 11 26 PM IST
New Delhi: It’s cheap, it’s easy to use and it’s probably India’s best bet to combat rising soil infertility caused by the indiscriminate use of fertilizers by farmers that is rapidly turning vast tracts of fertile land into barren expanses.
Samar Chandra Datta, 59, a soil scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), has developed a device that has the potential to be the weapon of choice for the government to stop overuse of urea, which accounts for more than 55% of India’s fertilizer consumption. The cost of the machine is estimated to be Rs.15,000, a fraction of the cost of machines that are in the 1,087 government soil-testing laboratories.
Flawed government policies have encouraged farmers to use large amounts of subsidized urea to boost soil fertility often as a substitute to other, more expensive fertilizers, reducing the yield of agricultural lands.
The significant gain in crop productivity that farmers, especially in northern India, witnessed after the so-called green revolution (1968-1981), which included planting high-yielding crops and using more fertilizers, are being squandered as the intense use of chemicals is degrading land at a record pace.
Consumption of fertilizers and pesticides grew at an average annual rate of 5.2% in the past 15 years, outpacing the 2.6% growth in agricultural output, according to the draft 12th Five-Year Plan document.
The increased usage of fertilizers has not only diminished soil fertility and raised food prices, it also threatens the health of millions of rural and urban Indians.
“The law of diminishing returns has kicked in,” said M.S. Swaminathan, the scientist considered the father of the green revolution, which dramatically increased India’s farm output. Swaminathan was referring to the fact that the increased use of fertilizers has failed to boost crop production in proportion to the additional investments.
The productivity of fertilizers during the three-and-a-half decades to 2005 has plunged from 15kg of foodgrains per kg of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) fertilizer in 1970 to 5kg of foodgrains in 2005, according to the Vision 2030 report prepared by the Indian Institute of Soil Science. In other words, soil fertility has dropped to a third of what it was in just 35 years.
“The need of the hour is to set up more soil testing labs and ‘agri clinics’ and involve local youth and fresh graduates coming out of various agricultural universities,” Swaminathan said.
At Haryana’s nodal soil and water testing laboratory in Karnal, which oversees the 36 laboratories in the state, the benefits of soil testing are evident. Farmers who have used the laboratory’s facilities say that they have halved fertilizer costs.
Kharcha to lagbhag aadha ho gaya hai (My expenditure on fertilizers has virtually halved),” said farmer Surat Singh, 40, a resident of Darad village in Karnal district. Singh used to put in three bags, or 150kg, of urea per acre whereas the soil-health lab recommended only 70kg. Diammonium phosphate requirement has also been cut to 35kg from 50kg an acre for paddy, he said.
Till the time Datta’s cheaper soil testing device becomes commercially available, the government’s soil testing laboratories are fighting a losing battle, unable to meet the needs of India’s 118 million farmers, who have scant access to the latest technologies.
When the government introduced its nutrient-based subsidy (NBS) scheme in April 2010, its major objectives were to curtail the ballooning subsidy bill and promote the balanced use of fertilizers. The outcome has been far from desirable. In the government’s own words the “NBS roll-out was seriously flawed since urea was kept out of its ambit”.
Prices of non-urea fertilizers rose after the government allowed companies to set the retail prices, skewing the usage in favour of urea, prices of which are still controlled by the government.
With urea being sold at a price as low as one-fifth the price of other essential fertilizers, including diammonium phosphate, muriate of potash and other complex fertilizers, the demand for urea has spiked. The increased use of urea, often as a substitute for other fertilizers, in turn, has destroyed the nutrient balance of the soil and inflated the government’s subsidy on fertilizers.
In the year ended 31 March, urea usage rose by about 1 million tonnes (mt) while the demand for non-urea fertilizers fell by more than 6 mt, worsening the soil nutrient imbalance.
Datta and his employer IARI plan to make the machines available at Krishi Vigyan Kendras, government-run centres that cater to the training needs of the farmers, in the states adjoining Delhi to test its efficacy.
“It can be a great tool in curbing the overuse of fertilizers and hence bring down the government’s subsidy burden,” said Datta.
While the low-cost, accessibility and the fact that just one person can operate the device are a definite advantage, it still may not be accurate and efficient enough to do away with the bigger government-run labs.
“We will still need proper soil testing labs. The Soil Test and Fertilizer Recommendation Meter can be a complementary machine,” said Datta, whose device will only test soil for three major nutrients—nitrogen, phosphate and potassium.
In contrast, the government labs can test as many as 16 nutrients with a greater degree of accuracy. The high cost of running such labs is a hurdle to make them available to farmers across India. While the devices in the government labs may cost as much as Rs.25 lakh, it also requires as many as 12 people, including soil testing officers, junior scientists and lab attendants.
The annual salary outlay may itself exceed Rs.20 lakh, according to M.L. Khurana, consultant and a former deputy director, soil-testing laboratory, department of agriculture, Haryana.
Funds to run such centres are only just part of a problem. Many such state-run labs are also grappling with vacant positions even as the skewed use of chemicals are posing a threat to human and soil health.
While soil fertility is a significant concern, the risk to human health because of leaching of toxins from fertilizers and pesticides into the soil and water can’t be overemphasized. “Excess urea leeches down to groundwater and poisons it,” said P.P. Biswas, principal soil scientist at Indian Council of Agricultural Research. “Consuming urea is very harmful for the human body and can lead to vomiting, nausea, etc.”
While farmers use excessive amount of urea and potash, they are ignoring the benefits of micronutrients such as zinc, iron and boron. A soil deficient in these nutrients will not give the desired yield no matter how much urea or phosphate is added, Biswas said. An analysis of more than 250,000 soil samples has revealed widespread deficiency of zinc (49%), followed by sulphur (41%), iron (12%) and boron (32%) in Bihar, according to a report by the Indian Institute of Soil Science.
Making matters worse, even the existing soil testing laboratories are lying unutilized in many states.
The Karnal lab is an exception. It is equipped with the latest technology with the installation of the Inductively Coupled Plasma Spectrometer, or ICP, in 2010. “It can test a soil sample for all its micro and macro nutrients in just one go within 1-1.25 minute,” said Khurana.
Sumer Chand of Khera Chappra village, who has 14 acres of land, opted to test his soil a couple of years back. Urea usage went down from 3-3.5 bags to 1.5-2 bags per acre, he said. He also stopped using zinc sulphate after tests showed that soil was rich in the mineral.
“If these agri clinics and labs provide good service, I have no doubt that farmers would be even willing to pay for it,” Swaminathan said.
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First Published: Wed, Jul 10 2013. 10 22 PM IST