Happy Seeder Can Reduce Air Pollution and GHG Emissions While Making Profits for Farmers

The average farmer who uses the Happy Seeder can generate up to 20% more profits than those who burn their fields, according to a new study.

A research paper “Fields on fire: Alternatives to crop residue burning in India” published in the world’s leading scientific journal, Science Magazine, indicates that using the Happy Seeder agriculture technology to manage rice residue has the potential of generating INR 6000–11,500 more profits per hectare for the average farmer. The Happy Seeder is a tractormounted machine that cuts and lifts rice straw, sows wheat into the soil, and deposits the straw over the sown area as mulch.

The paper evaluates the public and private costs and benefits of 10 alternate farming practices to manage rice residue, including burn and non-burn options. The Happy Seeder based systems emerge as the most profitable and scalable residue management practice as they are, on average, 10-20% more profitable than burning. This option also has the largest potential to reduce the environmental footprint of on-farm activities, as it would eliminate air pollution and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions per hectare by more than 78%, relative to all burning options.

This research aims to make the business case for why farmers should adopt no-burn alternative farming practices, discusses barriers to their uptake and solutions to increase their widespread adoption. This work was jointly undertaken by 29 Indian and international researchers from The Nature Conservancy, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), the University of Minnesota, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and several others.

Every year, some 23 million tonnes of rice residue is burnt in the states of Haryana, Punjab and Western Uttar Pradesh, contributing significantly to air pollution and short-lived climate pollutants. In Delhi NCR, about half the air pollution on some winter days can be attributed to agricultural fires, when air quality level is 20 times higher than the safe threshold defined by WHO.1 Residue burning has enormous impacts on human health, soil health, the economy and climate change.

“Despite its drawbacks, a key reason why burning continues in northwest India, is the perception that profitable alternatives do not exist. Our analysis demonstrates that the Happy Seeder is a profitable solution that could be scaled up for adoption among the 2.5 million farmers involved in the rice-wheat cropping cycle in northwest India, thereby completely eliminating the need to burn. It can also lower agriculture’s contribution to India’s GHG emissions, while adding to the goal of doubling farmers income.” says Priya Shyamsundar, Lead Economist at The Nature Conservancy and one of the lead authors of the paper.

“Through coordinated public and private actions, India has an opportunity to eliminate burning, increase farmer income and transition to more sustainable agriculture, while also addressing the urgent problem of seasonal air pollution. India’s efforts can provide lessons for other countries facing similar challenges. The Nature Conservancy, along with its partners, is committed to supporting the government’s efforts in promoting in-situ crop residue management.” says Seema Paul, paper author and Managing Director, The Nature Conservancy India.

“Within one year of our dedicated action using about US$75 million under the Central Sector Scheme on ‘Promotion of agriculture mechanization for in-situ management of crop residue in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi,’ we could reach 0.8 million hectares of adoption of Happy Seeder/zero tillage technology in the northwestern states of India,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). “Considering the findings of the Science article as well as reports from thousands of participatory validation trials, our efforts have resulted in an additional direct farmer benefit of US$131 million, compared to a burning option,” explained Mohapatra, who is also Secretary of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education.

The Government of India subsidy in 2018 for in-situ rice residue management has partly addressed a major financial barrier for farmers, which has resulted in an increase in Happy Seeder use. However, other barriers still exist, such as lack of knowledge of profitable no-burn solutions and impacts of burning, uncertainty about new technologies and burning ban implementation, and constraints in the supply-chain and rental markets. The paper states that NGOs, research organisations and universities can support the government in addressing these barriers through farmer communication campaigns, social nudging through trusted networks and demonstration and training. The private sector also has a critical role to play in increasing manufacturing and machinery rentals.