As we recognize the 50th year of Earth Day, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) looks back on recent impactful research to increase crop productivity while conserving natural resources.
WHEAT and its lead research partner, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), are proud of our research to move the needle on improving the environmental sustainability of farming and food production.
Plant resistance to insects
The 24th biannual session of the International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) workshop, held at CIMMYT headquarters this year, featured innovative insect resistance solutions to the global threat of crop pests. Their goal: to reduce the use of pesticides.
Research by WHEAT scientist Tek Sapkota has identified the optimum rates of nitrogen fertilizer application for rice and wheat in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India — minimizing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining crop productivity.
Reducing residue burning
A study by a global team including WHEAT scientist ML Jat shows that replacing rice residue burning with no-till farming practices raises farmers’ profits, cuts farm-related greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 78%, and lowers the choking air pollution that plagues the region each winter. These findings support Indian government policies including a US$166 million subsidy to promote mechanization such as the Happy Seeder.
Earth Day 1970 gave a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. With the same consciousness, we at WHEAT continue to work on research solutions to sustainably increase the production of nutritious wheat for improved livelihoods throughout the world.
This article was originally posted on the CGIAR website.
When the rice harvest season arrives in northwest India, farmers have only ten to twenty days to prepare their fields for the next season’s crop, wheat. For several decades now, this has meant using the fastest, cheapest tool at their disposal – fire – with devastating effects for human and environmental health.
In recent years, burning rice crop residue to clear land for wheat has reached crisis proportions. In November 2016, haze from agricultural burning in India’s northwestern states compounded New Delhi’s pollution problem, making the city’s air quality the worst in the world, and prompting a national emergency.
Innovations in farm machinery now hope to provide a more sustainable solution.
Where typical combine harvester machines leave behind narrow piles of dry residue that need to be cleared before planting can begin, innovative new machines and attachments can chop the leftover rice stalks, spread the residue evenly as mulch, and plant seeds into the soil – all without the need for clearing.
The simple adjustment in technique has the potential to bring transformational benefits for farmers, city-dwellers, and the environment.
“Rice residue burning is responsible for 40 percent of the air pollution in Delhi during the winter months, posing health hazards for several million people, adversely affecting soil health and creating the need for more water for crop production,” says M.L. Jat, a principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), who leads the Center’s contributions to climate-smart villages in South Asia as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).
“Direct seeding of crops using the Happy Seeder helps reduce air pollution, improve soil health, and helps farmers adapt to weather risks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saving water and improving their income by US$ 100-150 per hectare per year.”
The approach has been tested and validated through a large number of trials over several years by the partnership as part of their research into climate-smart agriculture, with positive results. It has since been adopted by farmers over nearly 0.7 million hectares in northwest India. Efforts are now looking into even larger-scale adoption of the technology to cut out burning for good.
A burning question
Until recently, up to 84 percent of agricultural burning in India has happened in rotational rice-wheat fields, with farmers seeing it as the cheapest option for clearing between crops. But this ‘low-cost’ option bears many costs later down the track, including for farmers.
Burning is a major cause of air pollution, which poses serious public health risks, particularly for children and the elderly. Smoke from burning can stunt lung development in children, trigger chronic illnesses like asthma, and even cause cancer. India now has the highest rate of death from respiratory disease, at 159 deaths per 100,000 people.
Soil health is also affected by burning. Clearing by fire depletes carbon stocks and nutrients in soil. It also dries the land and contributes to heat stress, which slows crop growth. The result is lower yields and a greater need for irrigation, among other costs for farmers.
Over the long term, burning is also contributing to global climate change, and posing a setback for India’s targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Burning one ton of rice residue can release up to 13 kilograms of particulate matter into the atmosphere. At the height of burning, up to 30 million tons of rice residue was being cleared by fire in India’s northwestern states every year.
“Burning crop residues, and especially rice, contributes significantly to India’s annual emissions of greenhouse gases like methane, carbon dioxide, carbon mono-oxide, nitrous oxide, sulpher dioxide and so on,” Jat says.
“Using the Happy Seeder instead of burning can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 79 percent.”
States like Haryana and Punjab are now taking action to stop burning, placing strict bans on the practice. But what are the alternatives for farmers, and how realistic are they?
Research shows that in their rush to remove rice residue from the field, farmers could be missing out on the use of a valuable resource.
When collected, leftover rice stalks can be reused as animal feed, and research is ongoing into its potential as a source of biofuel. But even if farmers can’t afford to clear, collect and process the residue, there are yet more benefits to be had by simply leaving it on their fields.
Chopped rice residue can be used as mulch, preparing the soil for the next season’s wheat crop. Using mulch can help farmers better control weeds, prevent waterlogging, lock in important nutrients, and maintain soil moisture, reducing the need for at least one round of irrigation per year. There is also evidence to suggest that mulch assists in carbon sequestration, bringing benefits for efforts on climate change.
The Happy Seeder planter is able to at once chop rice straw, bore through the residue to open a slit, deposit wheat seed and cover the seed. A combine harvester equipped with the Super Straw Management System (Super SMS) attachment can then be used to spread the residue evenly as mulch.
The technology eliminates the need for plowing, giving farmers the option of planting and harvesting their wheat crops up to two weeks earlier, avoiding the pre-monsoon heat. Importantly, it also eliminates the need to clear residue, effectively removing the need for burning.
The latest version of the improved Happy Seeder costs $1,900, which is still beyond the means of many farmers. But the machines are available for hire, and the number of service providers are rapidly growing.
In the northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana adoption of the machines has grown rapidly from 400 in use in 2015 to nearly 11,000 in 2018. In two years, the number of Happy Seeders in use in northwestern India is expected to grow to 35,000, bringing the practice of zero-tillage farming to around 2 million hectares of farmland.
As for the Super SMS attachment, there are now at least 100 manufacturers producing the essential piece, which is used on more than 5,000 combine harvesters. The attachment has been made mandatory for harvesters in Punjab and Haryana states, and is expected to be universally adopted over the next two years.
By avoiding burning, assisting sequestration and keeping carbon stocks in the soil for longer, the new approach to rice-wheat rotations is a win for climate-smart agriculture – a priority for the Government of India. As India’s population continues to grow and global weather patterns change, climate-smart farming will be essential for meeting national targets on emissions reduction and food security.
Published in Science, the article provides evidence for national policies that block stubble burning and promote no-till mechanization to manage crop residues.
This story by Mike Listman was originally posted on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
The new study compares 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 4 million hectares. The direct seeding of wheat into unplowed soil and shredded rice residues was the best option — it raises farmers’ profits through higher yields and savings in labor, fuel, and machinery costs.
The study, conducted by a global team of eminent agriculture and environmental scientists, was led by researchers from The Nature Conservancy, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the University of Minnesota.
A new economic study in the journal Science shows that thousands of farmers in northern India could increase their profits if they stop burning their rice straw and adopt no-till practices to grow wheat. Alternative farming practices could also cut farmers’ greenhouse gas emissions from on-farm activities by as much as 78% and help lower air pollution in cities like New Delhi.
A burning issue
To quickly and cheaply clear their fields to sow wheat each year, farmers in northern India burn an estimated 23 million tons of straw from their rice harvests. That enormous mass of straw, if packed into 20-kilogram 38-centimeter-high bales and piled on top of each other, would reach a height of over 430,000 kilometers — about 1.1 times the distance to the moon.
Regulations are in place in India to reduce agricultural fires but burning continues because of implementation challenges and lack of clarity about the profitability of alternate, no-burn farming.
Farmers have alternatives, the study shows. To sow wheat directly without plowing or burning rice straw, farmers need to purchase or rent a tractor-mounted implement known as the “Happy Seeder,” as well as attach straw shredders to their rice harvesters. Leaving straw on the soil as a mulch helps capture and retain moisture and also improves soil quality, according to M.L. Jat, CIMMYT Principal Scientist, cropping systems specialist and a co-author of the study.
The Science study demonstrates that it is possible to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in a way that is profitable to farmers and scalable.
The paper shows that Happy Seeder-based systems are on average 10%–20% more profitable than straw burning options.
“Our study dovetails with 2018 policies put in place by the government of India to stop farmers from burning, which includes a US$166 million subsidy to promote mechanization to manage crop residues within fields,” said Priya Shyamsundar, Lead Economist, Global Science, of The Nature Conservancy and first author of the study.
Shyamsundar noted that relatively few Indian farmers currently sow their wheat using the Happy Seeder but manufacturing of the Seeder had increased in recent years. “Less than a quarter of the total subsidy would pay for widespread adoption of the Happy Seeder, if aided by government and NGO support to build farmer awareness and impede burning.”
“With a rising population of 1.6 billion people, South Asia hosts 40% of the world’s poor and malnourished on just 2.4% of its land,” said Jat, who recently received India’s prestigious Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award for outstanding and impact-oriented research contributions in natural resource management and agricultural engineering. “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. 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.”
In November 2017, more than 4,000 schools closed in Delhi due to seasonal smog. This smog increases during October and November when fields are burned. It causes major transportation disruptions and poses health risks across northern India, including Delhi, a city of more than 18 million people.
Some of these problems can be resolved by the use of direct sowing technologies in northwestern India.
“Within one year of our dedicated action using about US$75 million under the Central Sector Scheme on ‘Promotion of agriculture mechanization for in-situ management of crop residue in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi,’ we could reach 0.8 million hectares of adoption of Happy Seeder/zero tillage technology in the northwestern states of India,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). “Considering the findings of the Science article as well as reports from thousands of participatory validation trials, our efforts have resulted in an additional direct farmer benefit of US$131 million, compared to a burning option,” explained Mohapatra, who is also secretary of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education.
This research was supported by the Susan and Craig McCaw Foundation, the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The Happy Seeder was originally developed through a project from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
For more information, or to arrange interviews with the researchers, please contact: