Given all the press about excessive use of fertilizers in “modern agriculture”, many people are surprised to find that India’s use of fertilizers per hectare is actually greater than that of the US. According to World Bank data, India used 168 kg of fertilizers per hectare of arable land in 2009, while the US used 109 kg.
According to the World Bank website, their fertilizer consumption data “measures the quantity of plant nutrients used per unit of arable land.” It includes nitrogenous, potash, and phosphate fertilizers (including ground rock phosphate), but excludes traditional animal and plant manures.
If we adjust India data for double cropping in India (about 40% of farmers plant more than one crop), we find the adjusted fertilizer use per crop per ha to be 120kg/ha, which is still higher than the US (assuming there is no double cropping there at all).
But as in everything else, the use of fertilizers varies quite significantly across different states. Fertilizer consumption in Orissa was less than half the national average, while MP stood at around 60% of national average, Haryana at double the average and Punjab clocking triple the national average.
In some areas of Punjab there is so much overuse of pesticides that the overall productivity of farmland has suffered dramatically in recent years.
Obviously, the overuse of chemicals is not good for continued productivity of the land, neither is it good for our water systems which become the recipients of run off chemicals, nor is it good for consumers.
The common perception is that fertilizer overuse is a problem of big rich farmers who can afford fertilizers. However, Ministry of Agriculture data shows fertilizer use is actually higher among small farmers. For example, while marginal farmers (<1ha) use 175kg per ha, large farmers use only 68kg, which is less than half.
It is not clear whether this is a result of decisions by larger farmers or simply because of statistical reasons (such as lower prevalence of double cropping among large farmers).
During my recent visit to rural Madhya Pradesh, I was at the home of a farmer where several other farmers had gathered for a discussion. These farmers held 20, 40, 60, 70 acres of land each. When I asked how they decide how much fertilizer to use, they all said that they decide by gut feel. They know that soil testing is available through govt. programs, but in all their life (all farmers were above 50), they have never once used soil testing to figure out which fertilizers to apply and in what quantity. The exact same response echoed by the host, a 50+ farmer who owns of 18ha (45 acres) and holds an M.Sc. in Agriculture.
This anecdote is supported by the conclusion reached by researchers in a large survey conducted of farmers in Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh: “They also revealed that they never went for soil or plant analysis, so they are not aware about the fertilizer requirement in their field and therefore, they were applying fertilizer on the basis of their existing knowledge.”
The study probed the reasons for not applying the recommended level of fertilizer. In all three states, the biggest reason was that farmers were not aware of the right quantity to apply (MP – 45% not aware, Bihar – 68% not aware, Orissa – 77% not aware).
So much for the “traditional farming knowledge” passed on from generation to generation. While farmers may be following certain practices, it is unclear whether these practices are indeed the best ones. The vast majority of farmers, whether a man with an M.Sc. in Agri with 45 acres of land, or 4th pass woman with 3 acres — all practice farming by guesswork.
But on a hopeful note: By serendipity, I did encounter one farmer following scientific practices — that will be the topic of a different blog.