Not burning would be a win-win for Indian farmers


Study highlights economic benefits of alternative approach.


The high cost of no progress. Indian farmers burn millions of tonnes of rice residue every year. 

Neil Palmer/CIAT

Embracing alternative farming practices would allow some Indian farmers to make more money while also cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 78%, research suggests.

The findings, by an international team of economists and agricultural specialists, add weight to an Indian Government campaign to reduce reliance on traditional burning.

To quickly and cheaply clear their fields to sow wheat each year, farmers in India’s northwest burn an estimated 23 million tonnes of straw from their rice harvests.

Regulations are in place to reduce agricultural fires but burning continues because of implementation challenges and lack of clarity about the profitability of alternate, no-burn farming.

The new study – led by researchers from The Nature Conservancy, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Borlaug Institute for South Asia, and the University of Minnesota, US – suggests that the alternatives make economic sense.

The team compared the costs and benefits of 10 distinct land preparation and sowing practices for northern India's rice-wheat cropping rotations, which are spread across more than four million hectares.

The direct seeding of wheat into unploughed soil and shredded rice residues was found to be the best option. It raises farmers' profits through higher yields and savings in labour, fuel, and machinery costs.

Using a simple tractor-mounted implement known as the Happy Seeder is, on average, 10-20% more profitable than straw burning options.

“Often, there are difficult trade-offs between environmental improvement and profitable economic opportunities,” the researchers write in the journal Science.

“The case of crop residue management in northwestern India does not appear to fit this pattern and provides lessons that may be useful elsewhere.”

Crop residue burning contributes to nearly a quarter of Delhi’s air pollution in the winter months. In November 2017, more than 4000 schools in the city closed due to seasonal smog.

Report co-author ML Jat notes that, with a population of 1.6 billion and rising, South Asia hosts 40% of the world's poor and malnourished on just 2.4% of its land.

"Better practices can help farmers adapt to warmer winters and extreme, erratic weather events such as droughts and floods, which are having a terrible impact on agriculture and livelihoods.,” he says.

“In addition, India's efforts to transition to more sustainable, less polluting farming practices can provide lessons for other countries facing similar risks and challenges."

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378429015300289
  2. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6453/536
  3. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-pollution/schools-shut-in-indias-delhi-for-the-week-as-toxic-smog-thickens-idUSKBN1D80ZU
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