Why a new decomposer may hope to put out agricultural stubble fires
Desperate to control air pollution in the national capital, the Union government in October proposed heavy fines and even jail time for polluters, including farmers who were burning rice stubble, sparking the city’s deadly winter smog. . Along with three new farm laws, thousands of farmers are also protesting these tough measures, saying they cannot afford expensive alternatives. But trials this harvest season indicate that burning of crop residues could be stopped, or at least effectively controlled, using a new technology that is showing encouraging results.
A proprietary microbial solution developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), generally known as the Pusa institute, which converts biomass, such as rice stubble, into natural compost, has proven successful in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana , according to the scientists behind the project. The Delhi government, which used the technology and is promoting it heavily, has also found the experiments to be successful.
“ICAR’s invention, called Pusa, breaks down crop residues, including rice straw, and turns them into manure in about 25 days, thus eliminating the need to burn rice stubble,” said YV Singh, lead scientist at Microbiology Institute, a leading state-run facility, HT said.
Singh said the technology showed an efficiency range of 70% to 80% during internal open testing. This paved the way for the Delhi government to adopt the technology, drenching more than 800 hectares of non-basmati rice fields with the biodecomponent in the rural belts of the capital for free. The operation, carried out between October 11 and November 20, cost approximately Rs 20 lakh.
A Delhi government panel studied the test results, rated them as a success, and recommended expanding their use nationally, as their evaluation found that the decomposer converted “90% -95% of crop residues into compost in 15 -20 days”.
“Delhi has found a solution to the problem of burning crop residues and now no state can give any excuse,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal told reporters on November 5 after touring the rice farms under the project.
Assuming Punjab farmers burn rice straw on at least two million hectares of rice, it will cost the state Rs 571 million to finance the use of the Pusa decomposer, HT’s calculations based on the government’s costs show. Delhi. This could be really innovative because the cost is only a fraction of the 6 billion rupees the state spends annually on subsidizing various agricultural inputs, from cheap fertilizers to energy.
Farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh often harvest rice in October and then set their fields on fire to clean the rice stalks for the next harvest.
Since the straw from premium basmati rice, which is mainly exported, is soft enough to be used as fodder, does not require burning and plays little role in air pollution. Basmati’s participation in total rice production is only 2.1%, according to official data. The residue from the non-basmati rice varieties, which account for the largest rice acreage, is too difficult to have economic use, and farmers have long argued that there is no viable or profitable alternative to burning the unwanted stalks. .
Although farmers in Punjab have increasingly switched to modern machines to harvest rice efficiently, these machines also leave rice stalks in their wake, leading to burning of stubble, said Manpreet Singh, an agricultural engineering specialist at the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. Automatic harvesters are designed to shave off the granulated part of the rice, leaving behind loose straw. Farmers find it cheaper to burn the remains.
Unlike the decline in land ownership size across India, the operational size of land ownership in Punjab has increased over the years, making the use of larger machines viable analysts say.
Data from the 2011 national agricultural census show that the average land size in Punjab has increased from 2.89 hectares (7.1 acres) in 1970-71 to 3.77 ha (9.3 acres) in 2010-11 , much higher than the national average of 1.5 hectares. hectares (3.7 acres).
As westerly winds carry smoke from the burning stubble toward the national capital, air pollution in Delhi rises to alarming levels: the air quality index often exceeds the “severe” level (over 400) that it is dangerous even for healthy people. Although local emissions and weather also cause pollution spikes during winter, the first wave exacerbated by stubble fires is the deadliest and most intense.
Air pollution kills about 30,000 people annually in Delhi, according to a 2015 report by the New Delhi Center for Science and Environment (CSE).
HOW THE SOLUTION WORKS
IARI scientists began a research project two years ago for a solution to non-basmati straw burning, a program that involved some of its top scientists and scores of PhD scholars, Singh said.
The Pusa decomposer comes in the form of capsules that contain an activated pack of eight strains of fungi. “I cannot make the strains public because it is a proprietary formulation and we are in talks with private firms to commercialize it in exchange for royalties,” added the lead scientist.
To prepare a 25-liter solution, enough to cover one hectare of rice, farmers must add five capsules of their own decomposer, along with brown sugar and chickpea flour, to the water. Within a week, a nice layer of mushroom mixture forms.
According to A. Amarender Reddy, senior scientist at the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (Crida), the microbial agents in the solution act on the straw to soften it, break down its components and release nutrients into the soil.
Singh said scientists were drawing lessons from actual trials in Delhi. “The field results are promising, but we are analyzing the results to see if we can further customize the product to suit different soil environments,” said Singh.
According to Reddy, findings from trial results, such as that of the Delhi government panel, are always represented in average terms. Any average does not account for variations on individual farms, so not all farms may have consistent results, he added.
OTHER STEPS NEEDED
The scientist said that using the solution in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, two other states that add to the capital’s pollution problems, could help control the problem, but added that the solution was not a silver bullet.
“It is not a magic solution that is sprayed and the beard fades. It works best as part of an integrated stubble management approach, ”said Singh.
For example, the scientists pointed out that farmers should make planted seeders, ferment the stubble with additional equipment, and adhere to prescribed temperatures during storage and spraying.
In Punjab, which reports far more fire incidents than Haryana (accumulated between October 1 and November 3, Punjab saw 79,093 fire incidents this year compared to 50,738 in the corresponding period last year, according to satellite monitoring by the Agricultural Research Institute of India), the government has authorized the use of eight agricultural equipment, including the so-called “happy planter”. Individual farmers can benefit from a 50% subsidy to purchase these machines, while farmer groups can receive a subsidy of up to 80%. These machines cost between Rs1.40 lakh to ₹ 1.60 lakh. The tractor-mounted “happy seeder” can be used to sow wheat without the need to clean the straw.
“But the problem is that farmers still prefer to burn due to lack of awareness and cost issues,” said HS Sidhu of the Borlaug Institute for South Asia, who was one of the developers of the “happy planter.”
Analysts say more studies of the Pusa decomposer should be urgently carried out in several agricultural areas. If the results are encouraging, the decomposer should be included among the agricultural technologies that are eligible for subsidy, they add.
“Any technology, to be successful, needs scalability. Therefore, the government should invest in any solution that shows promise. Testing in agroclimatic zones should be the way to go. Look at Covid-19. After all, mankind managed to develop a vaccine in such a short time, ”said Rohini Mali, an independent consultant, who was previously a food systems adviser at FAO in Rome.