How can sustainable agriculture be practised in Punjab?

1 March 2021


How can sustainable agriculture be practised in Punjab?

Focusing on food security, sustainable rural livelihoods, nutrition and prosperity for farmers, TIGR2ESS’s latest policy fellow, Mr Anirudh Tewari, met with experts from the programme and beyond to discuss how to make a lasting impact for the Punjab.

Reported by Julia Amtmann, CSaP Policy Intern

In December 2020 the additional Chief Secretary of the Department of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare, Horticulture and Food Processing at the Government of Punjab, Mr Anirudh Tewari virtually met with academics and farming professionals to discuss ways to provide an agriculturally sustainable future for the Punjab. As part of CSaP’s Policy Fellowships Programme and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) programme TIGR2ESS, these meetings were designed to discuss current problems in the state’s agriculture sector and begin to find realistic solutions towards long-term sustainability.

The Green Revolution of the 1960s transformed Indian agriculture into an industrial system, increasing productivity, boosting farmers’ incomes and providing food security due to the adoption of modern methods and technology. However, these achievements lacked a sustainable approach: it has since become apparent that the dramatic increase in the use of water and inputs has been detrimental to the Punjab’s ecology and water table, and yields have ultimately plateaued.

During his Policy Fellowship, Mr Tewari considered the challenges posed by the Green Revolution era from multiple angles. Throughout his discussions, questions surrounding nutrition, overuse of groundwater, farmers economics, citizens’ inclusion, safety and crop diversity were addressed in order to foster possible policy changes for a more sustainable agriculture in Punjab.

Nutrition in Punjab

Discussions with co-lead for TIGR2ESS Flagship Project (FP) 6 Founding Chair and Executive Director of NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health, Professor Sumantra Ray focused on the importance of nutritious meals. The conversation focused on how to tackle availability of nutritious food, provision of funds and the issue of nutritional awareness. In particular, an emphasis was put on the importance of making children aware of the significance of a balanced and nutritional meal. One potential solution put forward was using the mid-day meal scheme in Punjab as a way to introduce local and nutritious foods to people’s plates.

Water use

Improving the efficiency of water use in Punjab is a fundamental issue. Archaeologists Dr Cameron Petrie and Dr Adam Green of TIGR2ESS FP4 are investigating how the use of village ponds has changed over time. Their research has found that village ponds date back to the Bronze Age, but that their use has changed over time, with these ponds now often used to store waste water. With groundwater levels in Punjab fast declining, they suggested to Mr Tewari that cleaning village ponds could benefit farming and local communities and alleviate stress on groundwater.

Engineers from TIGR2ESS FP5, Dr Jagjit Singh Srai and Dr Naoum Tsolakis are also looking at ways to improve water usage. They highlighted in-field technical interventions which they have been trialing – using robots to precisely direct irrigation when and where it is needed, using far less water than standard flood irrigation. Additionally, in collaboration with colleagues at Punjab Agricultural University, they are looking at increasing the use of waste water, potential water saving benefits of alternative cropping systems, and setting up an expert panel to analyse the impact of different policy interventions on groundwater depletion.

Crop diversity

The current cropping intensity of rice, wheat and maize is having a detrimental impact on soil health in the Punjab, and, being highly water intensive, they are one direct cause of the decreasing water table. At present, the productivity levels of other crops, which could reduce the reliance on groundwater, are low due to government subsidies which focus on providing higher profits from rice, wheat and maize.

The Director of Country Relations and Business Affairs at ICRISAT, Arabinda Padhee stressed to Mr Tewari that alternative crops are essential to improving agricultural sustainability. Mr Padhee suggested a focus on promoting millets. Crop scientist Dr Rajeev Gupta from TIGR2ESS FP2 also underlined the potential of millets as they are more drought tolerant than wheat and do not require as much irrigation as rice. This means millets are better for the water economy of the Punjab. Baby corn is another crop that could be added into the wheat/paddy rotation suggested NIAB’s and TIGR2ESS FP3’s Dr Eric Ober – it has a long growing season in the Punjab, and provides both a high value cash crop (for which the Punjab has processing facilities) and animal fodder. Additionally, oil seeds should be promoted to increase crop diversity and catalyse a shift from focusing solely on quantity, to also factoring in quality. Dr Shailaja Fennell, lecturer in Development Studies at the Department of Land Economy of the University of Cambridge and co-lead of TIGR2ESS FP6, emphasised the positive aspects of improving crop diversity: alternative crops would use less water and fertilisers, as well as, with the right support from government, provide higher returns to farmers.

Entrepreneurial Farming

In order to support an increase in crop diversity in Punjab Professor Jaideep Prabhu, Professor of Marketing at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, and proponent of frugal innovation, put forward the idea of connecting farmers’ economics with sustainability. A shift in farmers’ mindsets towards a more entrepreneurial one, and empowering them to be proactive, would help to achieve a more economically and ecologically sustainable farming system.

Dr Mukesh Kumar, University Lecturer in Operations Management at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge, emphasised that policy makers must keep in mind that traditional farming techniques are essential. Dr Kumar proposed a standard, or seed brand, that guarantees the quality of seeds as an additional incentive for farmers to shift their cropping patterns to achieve more crop diversity.

Farmer dialogue

What about the role of farmers in shaping a sustainable future? “A dialogue with farmers is needed [in order to] to rethink [current] agriculture practices”, stressed Dr Shailaja Fennell: to identify key issues and change them on the ground, a system should be adapted where farmers are placed in the value chain and can include their knowledge. By linking farmers’ groups, knowledge and best practices can be exchanged to make farming more efficient. Dr Srai and Dr Tsolakis echoed this sentiment, and also discussed with Mr Tewari the benefits of helping Farmer Producer Organisations to form. By coming together, farmers are able to increase their bargaining power and negotiate better prices when buying and selling, ultimately leading to more sustainable livelihoods.

Several ways forward for a sustainable future for Punjab came to light during Mr Tewari’s discussions: restoring soil health, securing farmers’ prosperity, reorganising water use, and managing production in a sustainable manner were take home messages. Mr Tewari was left with much to think about, and is positive about integrating some of these ideas into future work in the Punjab:

The way forward for agriculture and farmers in the green revolution areas is to practice sustainable agriculture whilst ensuring enhanced income. The key to this lies in the farmers looking to diversify into more water efficient crops that also have higher nutritional values, like millets … Optimum use of ground water through effective recharge strategies and adoption of cropping patterns that break the wheat-paddy cycle are [the] need of the hour …The focus has now to shift from ‘productivity and production’ to ‘sustainability and prosperity’ for the farmers.’

Julia Amtmann

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge