A culture-specific sustainable model can be lucrative: The Tribune India

MS Bajwa

IN Punjab, crop diversification is often suggested as a solution whenever farmers and planners express concerns about declining agro-economic growth rate, depletion of water resources, difficulties in marketing rice, ecosystem degradation and related issues. The crop diversification schemes proposed earlier are mainly crop-oriented and too generalized to be adopted throughout Punjab, which has five agro-economic zones with varying biophysical resources. As concerted efforts (technical, financial, input supply, remunerative market price support, etc.) have not been made at any level during all these years to give practical form to the recommendations of the experts, the area under the system rice-wheat gradually increased. At present, the widespread patterns of crop diversification need to be restructured as the rice and wheat based economy in Punjab has reached a ‘no-win’ stage.

The next sustainable agriculture-based economic revolution should be through the diversification of the rice-wheat system (mainly the weaning of farmers from the water-intensive paddy) towards the commercial production of high-value food crops and non-food grain products such as fruits, vegetables, corn, legumes, oilseeds, soybeans, sugar cane, cotton, fodder, etc.

To achieve high, assured and sustainable productivity and profitability of diversified crops, farmers should be encouraged to go beyond the traditional “random diversion of areas from one crop to another” and adopt a “diversification” approach. technology-intensive precision crops. The proposed precision crop diversification plan involves the adoption of crop-specific cropping patterns based on site suitability (soil, water, and environment) to balance crop production and management systems. diversified cultivation and conservation of the finished soil. and water resources, and in turn achieve sustainable agricultural productivity, production efficiency and profitability.

This concept aims at the extensive use of modern agriculture management technologies, information on the variabilities of crop response according to the variable agricultural production potential (assessed on the basis of physical, chemical, biological and hydrological properties) available soil and water resources and indigenous knowledge for the development of comprehensive state, regional, zone and farm level plans for crop and cropping system diversification. For example, the diversion of rice areas should be crop-specific and based on site suitability, i.e. we should not stick to rice cultivation in sites/areas/ regions with highly permeable sandy and loamy soils, declining water table, saline irrigation water; areas diverted from cotton in the southwestern districts to rice (after ensuring adequate drainage, of course); and areas where other agricultural/crop systems can provide higher economic returns than rice. On the other hand, rice should not be replaced with crops such as corn, legumes, most fruits and vegetables, etc. in areas with saline soils, high water table/waterlogging, impermeable clay soils and traditional basmati areas. Similar factors will need to be considered for other crops.

An extensive configuration of soil analysis services, land use and soil survey systems, geographic information system and other information technology tools can guide decision makers and farmers to accurately develop models of sustainable crop diversification at different levels.

Emphasis should be placed on: (i) selection of crops based on site suitability (soil, water), viable and competitive in terms of price/income and their varieties; (ii) adoption of micro-management technologies for efficient use of soil, water, fertilizers, pesticides and energy for cost effective and environmentally friendly maximization of productivity, production efficiency and profitability; (iii) early adoption of specific regional strategies to protect farmers against risks related to agricultural production; (iv) strengthening region-specific research and development activities to generate climate-resilient technologies; (v) capacity building (financial, technological, specialized training, remunerative market) of farmers for the year-on-year increase in the production of diversified crops and cropping systems.

Crop diversification plans should be formulated in accordance with market demand (quantity and quality) of products, equitable access to new climate-resilient technologies, effective post-harvest management, assured remunerative marketing; development of infrastructure adapted to needs; and socio-economic needs.

Synchronously, strong policy and support for public-private investment are needed to minimize post-harvest losses of diversified products. For this, the policy should link crop diversification plans to: (i) efficient storage systems (stores, warehouses, cold rooms, integrated cold chains, silos, etc.) developed both for non-perishable products and perishable (Punjab has over 600 cold stores for potato but almost none for fruits, vegetables) at farm, village, block and regional level; (ii) agro-industrial industries established in rural areas, which can use locally available agricultural products, crop residues and agricultural waste as raw material for value addition. The establishment of small scale processing units in villages and modern mega food parks in Fazilka and others in Ladhowal (Ludhiana) and Kapurthala is a step in the right direction. But more such initiatives are needed as farmers are reluctant to switch from grain crops to fruits and vegetables due to the risk of possible spoilage (up to 30% of fruits and vegetables are wasted/lost) of perishable produce.

The government should legally guarantee the supply/purchase of all crops at or above the declared MSP, and promote linkages between produce and producers with remunerative markets and supermarkets. When the market prices of the products are below the MSP, the government must intervene to compensate the farmers through the system of “payment of compensatory prices”.

Governments and policymakers should develop and implement a forward-looking, region-specific crop diversification policy and investment plan. The policy should ensure that the action plan does not remain confined to crop production. Emphasis should be placed on the full range — production, post-harvest management, processing and marketing — of diversified crops, while minimizing the negative impact on natural resources.

It is time for appropriate initiatives to be taken to address the challenges on several fronts. A quick approach will not help achieve sustainable crop diversification.

The author is the former Director of Research, PAU, Ludhiana

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