Is the chemical fertilizer-based food production system sustainable? As a result, what happens to the soil and the larger issue of food security?

After a raging debate, the government finally decided to hike the chemical fertilizer subsidy, to catch up with spiralling fertilizer prices in the global market. Also, there is talk about bringing urea under the Nutrient Based Subsidy (NBS) system and decontrolling its prices. Obviously, the fertilizer industry is happy. But there is hardly any discussion on what is good for the farmer and the farm. What is the state of the soil in the country? And is this chemical fertilizer-based food production system sustainable?

The past debate and NBS

The government has been spending a huge amount of money to support chemical fertilizer production and its usage. It has touched almost a lakh crore in 2008-2009. This investment has always been under criticism as it was promoting an overuse of chemical fertilizers and thereby catalysing soil degradation. As a result, agricultural production in the bread baskets of the country has stagnated and even started to decline, posing a threat to the food security of the country. The drylands have never received the benefits of the crores of money being given out as fertilizer subsidy, as most farmers in these regions are, by default, organic as they cannot use chemical fertilizers; water being the limiting factor.

There have been concerns raised by several policy experts and others that the fertilizer policy of the country is only helping to move out the Indian tax payers' money to foreign petroleum companies and fertilizer producers. It is to be noted here that fertilizer production is highly dependent on fossil fuels, and that most fertilizers are imported.

In 2009, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee gave us a glimmer of hope when he announced a fertilizer subsidy reform and introduced the NBS system with a promise that the subsidy amount would be disbursed directly to farmers. In 2010, this policy was made effective, but there was no transfer of money to farmers. One year down the line, the NBS is proving to be a complete failure. Media reports point to the fact that after the introduction of the NBS, urea usage has gone up leading to a further degradation of the soil. Now, with the government increasing the fertilizer subsidy, it is also clear that the NBS has also failed to reduce the burden on the exchequer. It is neither helping the farmer nor the Government.

Soil degradation: farmers' view

In the mad rush to balance the chemical fertilizer kitty with global prices, policy makers are forgetting a huge problem that is staring us in the face — the deteriorating soil in the country and the resultant threat to food security. However farmers are aware of the crisis, but are helpless in the absence of support systems from the government. A recent Greenpeace India report, “Of Soils, Subsidies and Survival,” based on social audits conducted in five Indian States, has revealed that 96 per cent out of the 1,000 farmers surveyed were of the opinion that the use of chemical fertilisers led to soil degradation but they continue to use them as there was no other option. Ninety-four per cent of the surveyed farmers believed that only organic fertilisers can maintain soil health. However, only one per cent of the farmers received any kind of support for production and the use of organic fertilisers. Ninety-eight per cent of the surveyed farmers were ready to use organic fertilisers if they are subsidised and made easily available.

Further, only 34 per cent of them knew that chemical fertilisers are subsidised. Of those who knew, only seven per cent knew that a new subsidy system (NBS) was introduced by the government for chemical fertilizers. Even at the subsidised rate, 94 per cent of them thought that chemical fertilisers are unaffordable and not economical.

These are some of the eye-opening revelations that the government should look into. Whenever a fertilizer sop is announced, it is lauded as a farmer-friendly measure. But farmers are not even aware. They are more worried about the soil, a resource on which their livelihood is dependent. But the government tends to ignore this.

Support for alternatives

It is a well-accepted scientific fact that organic matter is the lifeline of the soil which is critical to maintain the health of this ecosystem. Measures have to be taken to promote the generation of sufficient biomass in a field to be added to the soil. Ecological fertilization offers a range of ways to nourish the soil, with no damage to the ecosystem, be it in irrigated or rainfed regions. Indian farmers were once aware of these practices. However with the mad promotion of chemical intensive agriculture in the country, invaluable, traditional knowledge has faded away. From a knowledge driven system, agriculture production in the country has become an external input–driven system. This is when the crisis started to emerge.

The agriculture research system in the country has always neglected an eco-friendly means of soil nutrition and never approached it in a holistic way. It has always revolved around a chemical intensive agricultural model. There is an impending need to refocus scientific research to identify the value of the traditional knowledge available with a farmer. Scientific research should go hand in hand with farmers' wisdom to help the country tide over the crisis.

The government should think about how long we can depend on a volatile fossil fuel-based agriculture system. How long can we be dependent on fertilizer imports? How long can we ignore the state of the soil in the country? And how long can we ignore a farmers' plight?

Now is the time for the government to start building an alternative support system which is both farmer and farm friendly. This can open up a lot of rural employment opportunities and contribute to the livelihood security of a farmer. This will also bring prosperity to rural India.

(The writer is Member of Parliament and former Union Minister of Rural Development.)

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