Organic fertilisers key to higher productivity, but weaning farmers from 'right chemicals' an issue

The chemical fertiliser subsidy needs to be replaced with a subsidy that will promote the use of organic fertilisers. This is not just environmentally correct but also important for the future of farmers and agriculture in the country.

The use of chemical fertilisers leads to a rapid deterioration in soil quality. Chemical fertilisers are nothing but alkaline salts of various kinds. As a result, they add to the salinity content of the soil. This saline residue accumulates with the usage of fertilisers. Chemical fertilisers also have heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, copper, nickel, etc., which accumulate in the soil.

The fall in productivity of wheat yields is well-documented in states like Punjab and projections for the next 20 years show that yields will continue to slip though and nitrate consumption will increase. The positive correlation between nitrate consumption and increase in wheat yields is over because of high usage.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

This deterioration of yield is taking place across the country. When yield falls, the farmer resorts to even higher use of chemical fertilisers, which affects the soil and also the ground water and river water. Nitrate contents leach into the ground and affect ground water. This then gets into the bio ecosystem and has long-term effects on health.

The alternative to this is to move towards organic fertilisers, but to wean Indian farmers away from chemical fertilisers is not easy. Moreover, the debate about chemical fertiliser usage has always been linked to productivity and has been smartly directed in recent times to usage of ‘right chemicals’. The last standing committee on agriculture explored this issue in 2015-16 right after the pesticide scare.

The thrust of the committee's report was that the 'right chemicals' were not being chosen by farmers. As a result, productivity in soil was deteriorating. It cleverly skirted the overuse of chemical fertilisers. It recommended that the government should prepare soil quality cards so that appropriate chemicals can be used by farmers. While overusage of urea or nitrogen compound is certainly a problem, it diverts the issue to one single kind of chemical fertiliser. This happens as the chemical fertiliser industry lobby does not really want its subsidy cash cow to be affected. But there is change underway, from an unexpected quarter.

Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertiliser Company (GNFC)  is building a model for neem-based fertilisers. The model is important and the efforts laudable as GNFC is trying to do what can be an industry model. A distributed model for collection, extraction and manufacture of neem-based organic fertilisers. The model came out as GNFC was asked to coat its chemical fertilisers with neem so that it is not diverted to other industries. Diversion of subsidised chemical fertilisers is a major problem and coating it with neem makes it almost impossible to be diverted. GNFC found that after it had collected and extracted the oil from neem seeds, it was left with a thousand of tonnes of neem residue. The residue had natural ingredients and could be used as fertilisers and pesticide.

chemical fertilisers chart

The company began collecting and extracting neem oil in Gujarat, but has now extended these operations to other states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. Extraction of neem oil will be done at local levels in these states at third party units and the cakes or residue left will be packaged and sold to farmers. Currently, the model is being financed through the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds of GNFC as collection of neem seeds have to be paid for. Moreover, the price of each bag is almost 2.5 times the price of urea. Company officials said that they were working on thin margins as the objective is to build a model that also provides employment.

The Gujarat state government has taken the initiative to give subsidy support to GNFC for its neem fertilisers. Neem seeds are seasonal and so the company has to quickly build a network of collection workers across these states. Local expellant and solvent extraction units have to be tied up so that the oil can be extracted. Neem seeds cannot be transported over long distances, hence the need for a distributed model of small units.

The model of manufacturing and distribution spreads across states. Instead of large factories, several smaller units have to be set up. This is the model which has to be adapted and built for organic fertilisers as it is not done on a large manufacturing scale. The subsidy element becomes that much more important as the government needs to promote such models to make it happen.

Currently, under the MNREGA scheme the government includes building pits for organic fertilisers. But it is a cursory exercise and not really pushed or connected with distribution of such fertilisers. Farmers are still obsessed with chemical fertilisers as it is much easier to buy a cheap bag of fertiliser than spend time and effort in making organic fertilisers. The process of making organic fertilisers is tedious and laborious.

Other fertiliser companies like the Delhi-based Indian Farmers Fertilisers Co-operative (IFFCO) is also trying to set up a plant for neem extraction and may look at packaging the residue. Neem oil is an extremely useful product and can be used in the making of soaps, shampoos, and even hair oil. All these products are being made by GNFC. Maybe, it will inspire IFFCO to do more too, as it is a much bigger company than GNFC.

More importantly, if the government starts using its subsidy to make chemical fertilisers companies build a distributed model for manufacturing and distributing organic fertilisers, the country will benefit. Public sector fertiliser companies may be more amenable and private sector companies may follow as they see the potential.

(K Yatish Rajawat is a policy analyst based in New Delhi. He tweets @yatishrajawat)

Published Date: Apr 18, 2017 09:57 am | Updated Date: Apr 18, 2017 10:11 am