Nano-urea, a product developed by the Indian Farmers and Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO) and heavily advertised by government as panacea to reduce farmer dependence on packaged urea is yet to be fully tested despite having been fast tracked for commercial application. Normally, three seasons of independent assessment by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is required for approving a new fertiliser, but in the case of nano urea this was reduced to two. Moreover scientists are still unclear if the product can on its own cut farmers’ dependence on urea.
Nano urea is a patented and indigenously made liquid that contains nanoparticles of urea, the most crucial chemical fertiliser for farmers in India. A single half-litre bottle of the liquid can compensate for a 45kg sack of urea that farmers traditionally rely on, it is claimed.
Fertiliser Minister, Mansukh Mandaviya has claimed that by 2025, India’s domestic urea production as well as that of nano-urea would together mean India would be “self sufficient,” in the manufacture of urea -the most important fertiliser for India’s farmers-- and would no longer require the 90 lakh tons that it imported every year and would save the country close to ₹40,000 crore.
The standard practice when sowing crops such as wheat, rice, mustard is to use at least two 45-kg sacks of urea, an inorganic compound and the crops’ main source of nitrogen. The first is applied during the early sowing or transplantation stage of the crop. The second stage application is done when the plant has sprouted a canopy of leaves, and is approaching the reproductive phase of plant growth.
However, a crucial point omitted in government communication around nano urea is that the traditional, packaged urea is still necessary during the initial stage, as basal nitrogen, of crop development. The nano urea could be useful once the plant grew after which the product could be sprayed on its leaves.
“Based on the experiments that were conducted, what was evident that 50% of the top-dressed urea (second stage application) could be replaced but not basal nitrogen,” Dr. Trilochan Mohapatra, former Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) told The Hindu, “In most cases yields weren’t affected and some instances the crop yield increased. But we need observations for more years.”
Based on a year (two seasons) of experiments in its affiliated labs, in 2019-2020, ICAR reported results of field trials on crops that benefitted from nano-urea, to the Central Fertiliser Committee, which decides on whether to approve a chemical fertiliser for commercial use in India. The approval for nano-urea came through, in February 2021, during Dr. Mohapatra’s tenure.
IFFCO has said farmer field trials were done over four seasons on 94 crops across 21 states since 2019. Trials were continued during Kharif 2021-22 too in all the agro-climatic regions of India. Various combinations of nitrogen that were made available to plants were evaluated and the resulting yield compared. Overall yields from applying nano urea increased average yield by 7% compared to traditional practices deployed by farmers. When tested in fields that employed organic farming practices (no chemical fertilisers, save the nano urea) the yields jumped 11%.
The Hindu reached out to IFFCO for comments but hasn’t received a response until publication.
One plant agronomist, who works for the Agriculture Ministry, told The Hindu that the process for approving a new fertiliser significantly depended on ICAR’s field observations. ICAR usually tested a product on approved research stations for at least two years (or three crop seasons). In the case of nano-urea however, this evaluation was only for a two crop seasons. “Normally, one year data alone is inadmissible because a multitude of factors can influence yields. ”
A senior scientist with the ICAR and privy to trial results, but who declined to be identified, said that while the practice was to gather trial data over three seasons before forwarding a recommendation to the government, IFFCO had already conducted well designed trials including in farmer fields and ICAR-approved Krishi Vikas Kendra (KVK) research stations. “Looking at their data, we don’t want to doubt their scientific ability. While company has claimed yield increases of even 25%, we didn’t observe that. But we do see that urea is being saved,” he said when asked why a season’s worth of data required was waived, “In our stations we saw some cases of yield increase by 3-8% but this wasn’t significant on its own as anything from rain or climate could influence results.
A 45-kg bag of urea costs around ₹3,000 though it is made available to the farmer at ₹242. A half-litre bottle of nano urea, cost the same, at ₹240 and is good for an acre of crop.
“Researchers have shown that the average productivity increase is around eight per cent, and therefore, it saves farmers to the tune of ₹5,000-₹10,000 per hectare. It is very efficient to use because there is no wastage in application of Nano urea. Therefore, its efficacy is more than 80 per cent , whereas the conventional urea efficacy is only 30 per cent to 40 percent,” the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers told a Standing Committee of Parliament this March “By 2025, eight plants are expected to make 44 crore bottles of nano urea which would replace 44 crore bags, or around 200 lakh tons (1 bag is 45-kg urea), which is 55-60 % of India’s 300-350 lakh ton requirement.”