A technology-led sustainable solution to end stubble burning | by nurture.farm | Oct, 2021

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By Pranav Tiwari, Chief Technology Officer, nurture.farm

Agriculture contributes to almost 17% of India’s GDP. While agriculture’s share of India’s GHG emissions is also in the same range, it spikes significantly during the months after harvesting due to the practice of crop stubble burning. Stubble burning refers to the practice of burning crop residue after harvesting grain crops.. Not only does it result in significant air pollution and soil degradation, it also has a huge health impact on millions of people. Sustainable practices in agriculture can be key to dealing with climate change, air quality and sustainable use of land and water. One significant step in that direction is tackling the issue of crop residue management and eliminating stubble burning. The main barrier to stubble burning is not the lack of alternatives available but rather understanding the problem at the root level, and choosing, mobilizing, and implementing solutions that fit the purpose.

Finding the Right Sustainable Option

To find a solution and get it adopted widely, we have to address the concerns about cost and scalability. A solution may provide the necessary outcomes, but devising a business case and justifying the investment in terms of men and material proves to be a bottleneck in its adoption. For example, farmers can avoid burning the stubble if they use Happy Seeders. However, Happy Seeders require a high-powered tractor to plough the land, and since only 15% of tractors in India qualify, this solution becomes prohibitively expensive for most farmers. It’s unreasonable to expect that small farmers with low farm incomes will be able to afford to pay for such an expensive solution, and hence it’s not a viable solution for mass adoption.

This is where the PUSA bio-decomposer from the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) fits right into the picture. It is a bio-enzyme, which is sprayed onto the harvested stubble, after which the soil is rotated and irrigated for the next few days. This provides the PUSA fungi an ideal environment for decomposing the stubble, and if carried out with precision, within days, the soil is ready for sowing the next crop. The PUSA bio-decomposer was initially available as capsules, and further R&D by both IARI and private partnerships has developed it into a more commercial shape, with an easier to transport and ready-to-use formula. 250grams of PUSA decomposer is effective for converting an acre of stubble into rich manure. Besides taking care of the crop residue without burning, it improves soil quality and reduces the dependence on chemical fertilizers for the next crop.

The PUSA bio-decomposer based crop residue management is being provided free of cost to farmers covering 500000 acres. It saves them money, improves their soil and gives them the pride of following a truly sustainable solution.

Digitising The Model For Cost & Service Efficiency

Digitization of service delivery provides an effective way of ensuring success of large scale solutions. Once the consumers are connected to an app or a digital platform, solutions flow to them through the designed pipeline. The same is true for solutions aimed to introduce sustainability to Indian farms.

For innovation to percolate down to the fields, digital connectivity provides an opportunity for educating farmers about the benefits of adopting newer sustainable models and reinforcing the message to help with broad adoption. In the initial stages, farmers are sensitized about stubble burning and how other sustainable methods are more viable options in the long run. Post this, apps designed in their vernacular can keep them in touch with information about best practices related to their crops, including benefits of regenerative practices like composting the stubble using the PUSA decomposer.

Given the nature of the end consumer, an amalgamation of physical and digital models works best, where field personnel sensitize the farmers and bring them on board, while the digital platform drives planning and efficient mobilization of the machines. For example, once the farmer has downloaded the app, he/she can inform the service provider about his harvest date so that operators and machines can be deployed to his farm to spray the bio-enzyme. Sensors on the spraying machine help with geo-tagging and analyzing the area sprayed, thus making it easier to map operators and quantify the product usage. The digital model makes managing data, logistics, human resources allocation, and regular interventions with the farmers easier, thus significantly reducing the overall cost of the service model while improving its efficiency manifolds.

Monitoring to Ensure the Impact

For years, Indian producers have been facing “digital darkness.” Innovation has been kept away from this primary workforce living and working in rural areas, turning the business of agriculture into an isolated one. Indian agriculture continues to face low technology penetration and lack of enough alternatives for sustainable agricultural practices. This results in higher input costs, degradation of water, air, and soil qualities, and lower agricultural incomes.

A similar situation exists while deploying a bio-spray to prevent stubble burning — its quantity, area sprayed, operator efficiency, spray efficacy, and whether or not it worked, or whether the farmer later resorted to stubble burning — needs to be analyzed to study the impact of the entire exercise. For this, independent knowledge bodies need to devise and monitor protocols for transparent impact analysis. Also, sensor-based information for tapping on-ground activities and satellite image mapping of the sprayed areas to check if the sprayed stubble was burnt at a later stage needs to be implemented. This gives credibility to the overall success of the project and sheds light on its impact, efficiency, and scalability.

As a country that is still primarily an agri-based economy employing a majority of the workforce in its sector, India needs to recognize that agriculture is both part of the problem and part of the solution to climate change and sustainability. Not just stubble burning, but the country and its farmers need to seize every opportunity to shift away from inefficient farm practices and make a conscious shift towards long-term sustainability, efficiency, and resilience. Technology, the missing link till now, will definitely be the catalyst and the impetus that the Indian farmer has been seeking for nurturing a sustainable farm and a high-yielding agriculture business.

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