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Innovations in Agriculture

Urea demand in the country currently stands at 5.833 million tons. But in August 2018 Urea stocks hit the lowest level of 87,000 tons, 12 percent less than the monthly demand. With the local production of 460,000 tons, the total Urea availability in August was recorded at 547,000 tons as against the off-take of 620,000 tons, showing a shortfall of 73,000 tons.

Shortages led to increase in prices in the open market and prices jumped to around Rs100/bag in the past one month. The situation had started threatening the summer crops and posed as well risks to the major crops of wheat, gram and lentil in the upcoming Rabi (spring harvest, also known as winter crop).

In view of the looming crisis, the government has allowed import of 100,000 tons of Urea and as it costs almost Rs1000 more than the local prices per ton, it has also been, therefore, decided to provide subsidy of Rs960 per ton on imported Urea.

The Urea crisis had emerged as local production went down steeply due to diminishing supplies of gas – the feed stock. Officials said that the local gas would be supplied to the plants for the first two months and later they would be shifted to imported re-gasified liquefied natural gas (RLNG) at 50 percent of original tariff.

On the face of it, it looks as if our agriculture sector, the backbone of our economy, in due course of time, would come to crucially depend on imports which in turn would depend on the vagaries of global demand and supply of gas and Urea. Shortages and price fluctuations at the global level of these two items, it is feared, in turn would surely impact adversely on our domestic agriculture production.

But then, there is a way out. Let us emulate our CPEC partners – the Chinese – and learn how they increased their crop yields whilst reducing the use of fertilisers.

According to Briony Haris (China cut fertilizer use and still increased crop yields: This how they did it – Published in World Economic Forum’s regional agenda on March 26, 2018) specific, evidence-based recommendations were made to 21 million Chinese farmers over a decade, offering them detailed advice about which variety of crop to use, exactly the best time to plant, how many seeds to sow and how much fertiliser to use.

The detailed guidance led to an increase in the amount of maize, wheat and rice produced, with crop yields increasing at an average of 11% at a time when fertiliser use was reduced by an average of 15% per crop, saving 1.2 million tons of nitrogen, according to the study published in Nature.

A report based on the outcome of concerted efforts in engaging millions of Chinese smallholder farmers to adopt enhanced management practices for greater yield and environmental performance has been compiled.

Field trials were conducted across China’s major agro-ecological zones to develop locally applicable recommendations using a comprehensive decision-support program.

Engaging farmers to adopt those recommendations involved the collaboration of a core network of 1,152 researchers with numerous extension agents and agribusiness personnel.

From 2005 to 2015, about 20.9 million farmers in 452 counties adopted enhanced management practices in fields with a total of 37.7 million cumulative hectares over the years.

Average yields (maize, rice and wheat) increased by 10.8-11.5%, generating a net grain output of 33 million tons (Mt). At the same time, application of nitrogen decreased by 14.7-18.1%, saving 1.2 Mt of nitrogen fertilizers.

The increased grain output and decreased nitrogen fertilizer use were equivalent to US$12.2 billion.

Greenhouse gas emissions were 328 kg, 812 kg and 434 kg CO2 equivalent per Mg of maize, rice and wheat produced, respectively, compared to 422 kg, 941 kg and 549 kg CO2 equivalent per Mg without the intervention. On the basis of a large-scale survey (8.6 million farmer participants) and scenario analyses, the potential impacts of implementing the enhanced management practices on China’s food security and sustainability outlook was further demonstrated.

The study is of huge importance to those looking at the future of sustainable agriculture and how the world will produce enough food for the rising population. It also points to the way in which science can improve agriculture.

The farmers were convinced to change their practices as a result of 14,000 workshops, on-site demonstrations and outreach programmes. This was achieved with the help of more than 1,000 researchers, 65,000 bureaucrats and technicians as well as 140,000 representatives from agriculture businesses.

Fertilisers such as nitrogen often end up in water sources, and contribute to the acidification of soil.

They also cause global warming, causing soil microbes to emit unexpectedly high levels of nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas with 300 times as much heat-trapping power as carbon dioxide.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization predicted that global fertiliser use would grow by 1.4% each year between 2014 and 2018, with China accounting for 18% of that growth.

The report notes that the Chinese farmers needed some convincing about the evidence before changing their normal farming methods.

And the wider community can learn from what happens when scientific evidence guides farming practices.

We also need to take a closer look at a 2017 working paper by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security. According to this paper, some of the most promising innovations in rural agricultural practices are service-based technology. With access to data, markets, and financial services, farmers can plant, fertilise, harvest, and sell products more effectively.

At the moment, these types of innovations are not featured prominently in most hunger-alleviation strategies. But that is slowly changing, especially as more people in emerging economies connect to mobile networks, and apps designed to collect and share agricultural information become increasingly accessible.

For example, in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, local extension services are delivering real-time weather data to vegetable farmers via SMS. In West Africa, private companies such as Ignitia are expanding the accuracy and precision of SMS weather alerts to remote farmers.

In Mongolia, rural herders receive information about disease outbreaks to help them maintain the health of their livestock. And farmers throughout the Global South are turning to SMS-based services for technical support that allows them more easily to adopt new crops and growing techniques, with benefits for both natural resources and household income and nutrition.

Connectivity also improves the functioning of markets by allowing farmers and herders to access accurate price information, coordinate transport and other logistics, and facilitate easier exchange of perishable but nutritious foods such as animal products and vegetables. Mobile money and price information also enable animal farmers to adjust herd sizes to changing environmental conditions, while enabling farmers to secure seeds and fertilizer for future harvests.

Furthermore, by enabling the quick and secure transfer of funds, mobile-banking services allow producers to access markets more efficiently, reduce their transaction costs, and tap into higher-value market sectors. Mobile payment systems are also facilitating remittances from urban to rural areas, an increasingly important component of rural livelihoods.

Of course, the mere existence of this technology will not do the job. The challenge is to broaden access to all of these tools, and to ensure that they meet the needs of the farmers who use them. This demands that mobile technologies take into account differences in gender, education, and resource levels among farmers, and are responsive to changing circumstances. The impact and success of these tools and programs should be monitored and evaluated, with ineffective approaches being improved or replaced.

Research conducted in rural communities around the world, has found what they all have in common is the difficulty that farmers confront in accessing reliable information about markets, weather, and financing. With climate change a growing concern, traditional information networks are no longer sufficient. Farmers everywhere, but especially in developing economies, need the support of digital communities.

For hundreds of millions of people, information is the difference between food security and hunger. But, amid the triple threats of climate change, violent conflict, and mass migration, how that information is gathered and shared is changing. Farmers’ personal networks are now global and online. To feed a rapidly growing population, we must use new technology.

M Ziauddin, "Innovations in Agriculture," Business Recorder. 2018-09-26.
Keywords: Economics , Local production , Looming crisis , Major crops , Agricultural Organization , Nitrous oxide , Climate change , CGIAR , RLNG , CPEC