A burning issue How sustainable agriculture is helping mitigate air pollution in South Asia

Pollution has become a part of our daily life creating enormous human costs. Particulate matter in the air we breathe, organic pollutants and heavy metals in our food supply and drinking water — all of these pollutants affects the quality of human life. India is home to 14 of the world’s cities with the highest air pollution, making it an issue of national concern.

India is the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter where agriculture is responsible for 18% of total national emissions.

The burning of crop residue, or stubble, across millions of hectares of cropland between planting seasons is a visible contributor to air pollution in both rural and urban areas. With the rice sowing season changing to accommodate water constraints, the time available to farmers between harvesting rice and planting wheat is a mere 10-20 days.
Millions of farmers burn the straw that remains after the rice harvest to prepare their fields for a wheat crop.
Consequently, many farmers keep costs low by burning crop residue on their farms rather than paying for its removal for other uses, to include animal feed, biofuel, incorporating it into the soil, or mulch. With nearly a million land holdings burning, a great deal of smoke goes up into the air.

Understanding the different types of pollution and how they affect our health and the environment will help us take steps towards improving the air around us.

For decades, CIMMYT has engaged in the development and promotion of technologies to reduce our environmental footprint and conserve natural resources to help improve farmer’s productivity.

Mismanagement of water, excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers, increases our environmental footprint.

Efficient use of nitrogen fertilizers, better management of water, zero tillage farming, and better residue management strategies offer viable solutions to beat air pollution originating from the agriculture sector. Mitigation measures have been developed, field tested, and widely adopted by farmers across India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.

Innovation in agricultural machinery promises multiple benefits for farmers as they help to mitigate air pollution in India. Evidence shows that use of the newly developed Happy Seeder planting machines, coupled with the Super Straw Management System (SMS), harvesters, is a cost-effective solution for reducing crop-residue burning and its damage on soil, yield limitations and air pollution.

“This tractor mounted model is a no-till planter that facilitates no-burn farming. Instead, it sows wheat into fields mulched with rice crop residue. Along with Super Straw Management System (SMS), a necessary complementary spreader mechanism that can be attached to combine harvesters, crop residue management would work to benefit farmers and the environment” says M. L. Jat, CIMMYT Cropping Systems Agronomist.

Zero tillage (ZT) technology plays an important role in the sustainable intensification of rice–wheat cropping systems and in the adoption of better management practices.

Zero tillage reverses the loss of soil organic matter that happens in conventional tillage. ZT improves soil quality and water retaining capacity by adding organic matter.
In zero tillage, the seed and fertilizer fall neatly into the furrow in right quantity. The precise placement of fertilizer provides easy access to the emerging roots and reduces the risk of fertilizer loss.
ZT provides excellent seed-soil contact and hence facilitates uniform emergence of seeds.

Zero tillage (ZT) offers significant opportunities in cropping system optimization for greater system productivity. "Advantages of ZT include improved soil and water conservation, increased use of land through intensification of cropping systems, reduced labor and energy requirements, reduced equipment inventories, reduced wear and tear on tractors and equipment, and greater environmental benefits. ZT use leads to reduction in air pollution by minimizing crop residue burning," says R.K. Malik, a senior scientist who advocates for early sowing of wheat and zero tillage in the eastern Indo Gangetic Plains.

"As crop residues decompose, this creates an open soil structure that lets water in more easily, reducing runoff," says says R.K. Malik, Senior Scientist, CSISA

Fine particles of dust from the soil can travel thousands of miles. They may also carry pathogens and harmful substances, which cause acute and chronic respiratory problems. By adopting zero tillage farming, the dust pollution from soil can be greatly reduced.

Rab is a traditional practice in which a rice nursery is established by burning naturally available biomass such as branches and dry leaves of trees, cow dung, dry grass and crop residues. This practice is mostly confined to North Konkan (coastal districts of Maharashtra), the Maval tract of Pune district and southern Gujarat. It is estimated that around 100,000 ha of rice is planted using Rab.

Rab is an ecologically destructive process. It has enormous negative effects on the environment due to the destruction of biomass, emission of multiple greenhouse gases, particulate matters (PM) and black carbon. The recurrent practice of Rab would have adverse impacts on soil micro-flora and in turn on soil quality, affecting crop productivity. Photo: Prasun Gangopadhyay, BISA

“Scientific nursery raising, Direct Seeded Rice (DSR), and the use of pre and post emergence herbicides and better agronomic practices have helped to eliminate Rab. At present BISA is promoting awareness by liasoning with local government agencies including agriculture and forest departments, village knowledge centers, NGOs and progressive farmers. More than 1200 farmers moved away from Rab in 2019” says Arun Joshi, Director of Research at Borlaug Institute for Asia (BISA).

India’s farmers feed billions of people, while fighting pest and weather related uncertainties. Is it too much to ask them to change their behavior and help support air quality with the food they grow?

Air pollution mitigation strategies include the adoption of precision nutrition management, zero-tillage farming, the prevention of crop residue burning, improved water management, and the adoption of laser land leveling.

“Multi-lateral impacts of air pollution link directly it to various sustainability issues. The major sustainability issues regarding air quality revolve around the common question: How good is good enough to be sustainable? We need to decide how to balance the sustainable agriculture productivity and hazardous pollution levels. We need to have policies on the regulation of crop burning and in addition to policies surrounding methods to help reach appropriate air quality levels.” quotes Balwinder Singh, CIMMYT Cropping Systems Simulation Modeler.

Towards green futures: We need a new approach to managing our lives and economies. Sustainable consumption and production, through improved resource efficiency and lifestyle changes, should be promoted. Citizens need to be informed and inspired to reduce their own pollution footprint and be advocates for bold pollution-beating commitments from the public and private sectors.



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