Rain-fed agriculture accounts for over 80% of the world’s farm area and generates about 60% of the world’s staple food supply. It also supports the livelihoods of about 80% of the world’s population. Related to this, 95% of the world’s poor live in the Global South and the bulk of those people rely on subsistence agriculture for survival. Climate change has contributed to changing weather patterns, which is adversely affecting farming. Droughts are frequent and protracted, and water scarcity is one of the leading factors in crop production declines, or failures. Developing ways to make more food with less water is an issue on the global radar, and a research team in India has successfully re-invigorated its agricultural sector with micronutrients.
Suhas Wani is a scientist at the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Technology (ICRISAT), located in Hydrabad, India. The centre is one of 15 research facilities that are part of the global Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. Wani was initially approached in 2003 by Umesh Katti, India’s Minister of Agriculture, who sought to revive the sector and was familiar with Wani’s work in water conservation. The technique that Wani and his team developed, called Bhoo Chetana (which means “reviving the soil”), aims to increase crop production and incomes for small-hold farmers by feeding soils with micronutrients where levels are deficient while also reducing the use of fertilizers that contaminate groundwater with excess nitrogen and potash. The project started small, with pilot initiatives in 6 districts of Karnataka Province. The province has endured drought for the last 10 years and is host to over 60% of India’s arable land. Due to its success rates in this region, the project is being implemented across the country, and other countries are looking to take on similar initiatives.
The project is of significant importance because currently, there is a deficit in the amount of water available for crop irrigation, which results in low yields of lesser quality crops. Additionally, the efficiency of rainwater use in the area varies between 35 – 65%. The addition of micronutrients to the soil helps to maximize the health, or condition of the soil, and in conjunction micronutrients infused into the soil are zinc, boron and sulphur. The program is essentially a health check-up for soil. As specific areas are tested, each area is given a unique diagnosis regarding which micronutrients it lacks and which areas need supplements, or don’t need any at all. For example, if a tested area is found to contain enough potash, then fertilizers don’t need to be used as the excess potash in the fertilizer will just end up in the ground water. The farmer saves money, crop yields increase and the environment also benefits.
The project is reliant on grass-roots participation, as samples are collected by the farmers, and farmer ‘facilitators’ are the acting link between the state and the farmer, and are hired by the Province on a seasonal, rotational basis to help spread the initiative to other farmers. The rationale here is that the people were more likely to listen to, interact with, and learn from members of their community members rather than a hired outsider. Farmer facilitators work for about 6 months per year, are paid by the Province, and also coach on composting with earthworms as an alternative to chemical fertilizers. Ten thousand farmers across the province are employed and each cover about 500 hectares and assist the state in supplying farmers with seed, primarily chickpeas, finger millet, maize, and groundnut, as well as supplying fertilizers and micronutrients. Once an area has been assessed, notices go up in public spaces so other farmers in the area also know how to treat their soils in order to maximize crop yields.
The project is supported via state subsidies on micronutrients, and it has drastically improved crop yields across the province. ICRISAT has assisted the facilitation of over 95,000 soil analyses, which is the largest amount conducted by a developing country. Over 3 million farmers are participating, and they are reporting yield increases ranging anywhere from 20 – 60% despite the occurrence of drought. The gross value of crop production in the area had increased by $130M by 2011. Ravi Kakiyayya, a farmer in the region, reported that he reduced his spending on fertilizers by 50%, doubled his income and is seeking to expand and diversify. This experience is occurring all over the region. The sector is growing at a 5 – 8% compound rate and has the potential to significantly impact the standard of living for small-holder farmers and contribute to overall national economic growth.
Given that the project’s success is dependent on government subsidies, however, it is unclear whether the project would be successful in countries whose governments cannot contribute on such a wide-reaching scale. The project may be suitable only for those developing countries that have a stable enough economy to support it. The Philippines has adopted it, and the idea has spread to Africa, where water management and land rejuvenation is paramount. For LDCs to adopt the model, perhaps starting in smaller communities, with localized funding may provide a good foundation upon which to expand. Donor governments or agencies could assist with the provision of micronutrients, fertilizer or seeds, or subsidize wages for farmer facilitators. A micro-finance initiative could also help communities sell seeds to farmers at manageable prices and help them enter the market. The focus on micronutrients has gained a foothold in development discourse, and perhaps with some country-specific adaptation, this method may not in fact be out of reach for those countries that perhaps need it most.
The ICRISAT offers a detailed handbook on the initiative, which is accessible here.
For further information about the organization and its innovations, projects and research, visit their website.