No-Burn Agriculture by 2022 is Possible

A report by The Nature Conservancy and partners paves the way for a full transition away from crop residue burning in northwest India.

TNC is helping fight the choking smog that threatens peoples’ lives by giving farmers an alternative to burning their fields when they prepare to plant new crops.
In northern India, TNC is helping fight the choking smog that threatens peoples’ lives by giving farmers an alternative to burning their fields when they prepare to plant new crops. © Natalya Skiba/TNC

Crop residue burning in northwest India contributes to nearly a quarter of Delhi’s air pollution in the winter months, creating a crisis situation and public health emergency every year in November.

A piece of innovative agricultural technology, The Happy Seeder, has recently been recommended by India’s National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) as a holistic solution to eliminate crop residue burning while increasing farmer’s incomes, improving soil fertility and reducing water use (NAAS’s Policy Brief). However, its uptake has been slow and currently less than 1% of agricultural acreage in northwest India is using this technology.

A new report, ‘The Evergreen Revolution,’ jointly published by The Nature Conservancy; International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT); Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA); CGIAR Research program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the University of Minnesota, endorses NAAS’s recommendation.

The report states: “We believe a full transition away from crop burning in Northwest India in the next five years is possible. As pioneers of agricultural system change, India’s farmers are poised to spark the world’s next agricultural transformation. India and other countries worldwide face increasing challenges in meeting the multiple demands for food security, clean air and water and stable climate. India, a centre of the initial Green Revolution, can spark an Evergreen Revolution and redefine the future of agriculture.”

To achieve this goal, the report outlines six recommendations to address current technical, economic, behavioural and financial barriers to the uptake of Happy Seeder. These recommendations were developed in consultation with farmers, agricultural research institutions, civil society institutions including non-profit organisations and government representatives:

  1. Strengthen innovation networks to accelerate Happy Seeder adoption through farmer driven learnings
  2. Clarify the business case for Happy Seeder compared to other crop residue management options
  3. Create model business plans for entrepreneurs desiring to provide Happy Seeder services
  4. Implement an awareness and capacity building initiative to rapidly scale Happy Seeder adoption
  5. Increase production and purchase of Happy Seeder through finance mechanisms
  6. Support the government’s enforcement of the ban on residue burning by demonstrating farmer access to cost-effective, sustainable alternatives

Seema Paul, Managing Director, The Nature Conservancy India, said, “The Happy Seeder is a practical and tangible solution to the immediate challenge of rice residue burning in northwest India. Along with our partners, we are committed to supporting the government by piloting the efforts to accelerate adoption of this technology. Achieving the ambitious goal of no-burn agriculture by 2022 will require concerted efforts from numerous governmental, non-profit and private sector organizations but with foresight and commitment, this is certainly doable.”

This was further reiterated by Heather Tallis, Global Managing Director and Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation, The Nature Conservancy, “For today’s complicated challenges, it’s not often that we have a good solution in hand. Evidence shows that the Happy Seeder is a no-brainer. It improves farmer’s profits, helps people struggling to breathe downwind in Delhi, and benefits nature.”

Dr. M.L. Jat, Principal Scientist, CIMMYT said, “The Happy Seeder has the potential to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Government of India’s mission on soil health, doubling farmer’s income, reducing climate risks, more crop per drop and many more.”

The report further highlights that in the long run, India will have to make efforts to overcome underlying systemic challenges facing northwest Indian agriculture. These include shifting to a more diversified cropping system that is not water intensive; removal of conflicting and untargeted subsidies on irrigation, fertiliser, technology and energy; and harmonizing policies across ministries to simultaneously achieve multiple goals of doubling farmer income, improving food and water security, improving air and water quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What is The Happy Seeder?

It is a tractor mounted equipment that acts as a no-till seeder. It mulches rice crop residue and deposits the mulched rice residue around the wheat seed in one simple operation, with the help of a spreader. The spreader, also called the Super Straw Management System, has recently been launched in the market and the Happy Seeder works in combination with it. The Happy Seeder costs Rs. 1.3 lacs and the spreader costs an additional Rs. 1.2 lacs. While the costs make it prohibitive for individual farmers, a service provider model could make it accessible.

Why is it the most viable large-scale solution to crop residue burning?

In northwest India alone, rice residue amounts to nearly 33.9 million tonnes, and sustainably disposing it before the next crop requires labour, time, and capital. Currently, less than 15% of the total rice residue in northwest India is being utilised through various options such as electricity generation, production of bio-oil and on-farm use such as incorporation and composting. Happy Seeder can enable the use of crop residue on the farm itself while also benefiting farmers. It is therefore a scalable solution that can make use of large quantities of residue.

What are the benefits of Happy Seeder?

  1. It can increase profits of farmers by lowering equipment and labour costs and reducing fuel, fertiliser and herbicide requirements, while modestly increasing yields.
  2. It improves soil health by retaining nutrients and improves nutrient use efficiency by 10-15%.
  3. It saves water by up to 1.45 million litres per hectare through reduced evaporation and eliminating pre-sowing irrigation. This makes it ideal for Punjab and Haryana where declining water tables are a serious concern.
  4. Reduced use of fuel leads to reduction in GHG emissions.
  5. Eliminating the need of crop burning reduces air pollution by PM2.5 and PM10 particles, black carbon and noxious gases.