Present day Industrial Scale Wheat Farming in India from an Environmental Impact & Sustainability Perspective
Until about 50 years ago, till the ’70s, the Indian variety of wheat cultivation used to be a delight crop, sowed using the water available from the end of monsoon season (known as Uttara Nakshatra Monsoon rivers) end of September, early October. This crop did not need any further water nor any fertilizer feed until harvesting. The crop would stabilize with the start of colder weather in November and continue over the winter season, harvested after four months by the end of February. The yield ranged from 16 to 18 quintals per acre.
In Maharashtra (the state I belong to), they were known as Koradvahu Sheti (Rainfed Agriculture or Dry Farming). Khapli, Bansi, Kalyan Sona etc. are examples of the wheat types.
These crops, such as Khapli/Emmer Wheat, are nutritionally fortified and have several dietary benefits, such as twice the fibre and protein compared to other wheat varieties. Hence you feel full when consumed and also reduces hunger pangs and therefore aiding weight loss. They have complex carbs that can boost our immunity, and their gluten molecule is weak and thus suitable for those with gluten intolerance. They can lower bad cholesterol, which is good for the heart. They are rich in niacin of Vitamin B3, which is excellent for heart and cholesterol levels and a good source of magnesium, iron and other nutrient profiles. And hence good for all age groups and inclusive of pregnant women and post-delivery. Research has shown that Khapli/Emmer Wheat is great for people with diabetes as it can lower blood sugar levels.
Then came along period in India called The Green Revolution, from 1967-68 to 1977-78, a time when agriculture in India got converted into an industrial system with the adoption of modern methods and technology, such as the use of high yielding variety (HYV) seeds, tractors, irrigation facilities, pesticides, and fertilizers.
Non-Native seeds and urea got introduced to wheat farming. The combination seemed like a winner with a higher yield for a few years. But in the long run, it proved to be a disaster for both yields and quality and permanent damage to the soil. Urea was introduced as a stable fertilizer that can improve soil quality, provide nitrogen to plants, and increase crop yield.
The pitch for higher yield naturally drew people towards it for higher resource prospects. The awareness tactic was simple and easily communicated to increase quantity but ignored warnings to farmers of impending future effects.
As with any source of nitrogen, urea itself can damage plants: nitrogen impairs or entirely impedes seed germination, and too much nitrogen can give crops a “burn.” Urea cannot be used directly by plants as it’s naturally converted into ammonia on contact with water in the soil. However, if there is too much urea or ammonium in the soil, it will draw moisture out of the roots and cause ‘fertilizer burn’, with the leaves shriveling and dying, often also killing the plant. Also, urea tends to increase the temperature of the soil by a couple of degrees when you apply it frequently to the earth. Hence it was recommended as a standard SOP to do water flooding after application of urea to double the yield.
Before and After
I’m using one acre as a model to explain between what used to happen & versus reality check in the new world order.
The traditional farmer used to sow Desi (local) variety only with the monsoon river water and harvest an average of 16 quintals after four months, with no additional water throughout the period.
In the Green Revolution Method using urea, the yield went up to 22 – 25 quintals from one acre. 1989 was the peak bumper crop year, food grains were in excess, and all the FCI godowns were brimming to the full capacities. After hitting the peak, the yield started to drop year after year and kept decreasing until it reached about 8 quintals per acre.
In contrast, in traditional farming without water, we used to harvest 16- 18 quintals. Now with urea and excess water, the yield is down to 8 quintals per acre. Also, it saw an onslaught of several new pests & insects to which pesticide spraying quantity and frequency increased, which led to the introduction of other more potent pesticides. The resultant effect was that average wheat growing soils remained between 8 -12 quintals in the new world average is 10 quintals per acre.
Now for some facts from sustained awareness, study & conclusions drawn from practical on-field experience. With the use of non-native seeds introduced for wheat and combined with urea, these are facts are alarming!!!
As a thumb rule, one acre of wheat cultivation needed to water flood the field 5 to 7 times in 4-month sowing to harvest period. It was mandatory that after every Urea application, the field had to be water flooded to avoid crop burn. This flooding caused the soil to lose its water-retention capacity due to destruction to the microbes & topsoil erosion.
One acre field needs a 5 HP pump to work for 8 hours to flood the fields.
5HP pump lifts about an average of 25,000 litres of water per hour.
That is 25,000 x 8 hours, which is 2,00,000 Liters per day – 2 Lacs Litre for Indians & 200,000 for the understanding of others.
This when repeated 7 times each harvest season, is 2,00,000 x 7 = 14,00,000, rounded off to
15 lac litres of water is needed for 1 Acre of no-native seed wheat farming of one acre.
This one-acre yields 10 boris (sacks) of 100 Kilos (One Quintal) each. So total production from one acre is 10 Quintals which is 1000 Kilograms
Considering Rupees 20/- per Kilogram, the total income of the farmer is 20 x 1000 = 20,000
Earning before considering Manpower, Seeds, Fertilizer, Water, Power, Equipment Hire is 20,000/ per harvest.
Costs from our experience:
In our experience, from preparing the soil for Sowing to Harvesting the Tractor use cost with Fuel is about 2000 per harvest for one Acre of land = 2000
Harvester use cost with Fuel is about 2000 per harvest for one acre of land = 3000
Urea for one acre of land per harvest is about 1000 = 1000
We need two bags of seeds of Rupees 500 each for one acre per harvest = 1000
The total cost for the above four aspects is Rupees 7000. Therefore, it is already at Rupees 7 per Kilogram. So, the net income of the farmer per acre is down to Rupees 13 per Kilogram.
We don’t have the room to consider the hard work input by the farmer and no room to give credit for the 15 Lac Liters of water lifted from the ground “PER ACRE, PER HARVEST.”
It’s an ecological disaster to consume/utilize this quantum of earth water, so such minuscule output and that too without any credit or recognition for the inadequate action taken to replenish this life-giving natural source.
Academically speaking, even if we considered ten paise per litre, we are talking 1,50,000 for 15 Lac (15, 00,000) Litres. That’s Rupees 150 per kilo for a crop that fetches Rupees 20 per kilo.
Another interesting angle - Calories
It’s taken as a thumb rule after study and research that 1-litre water acts as the medium & catalyst to produce 700 calories of energy. This is from the whole cycle of taking sun energy, taking macro & micronutrients from soil, photosynthesis, and producing calories in the plant, which is then consumed as food for energy.
So, considering 15 Lacs Litres used for 1000 Kgs of Wheat cultivated from one acre of land.
That’s 15,00,000 litres x 700 calories = 105,00,00,000 (105 Crore Calories for understanding of Indians) (1,050,000,000 One Billion, 50 Million Calories) is the input.
The calorie of wheat is about 3640/ per Kilogram. So the entire produce from One acre Land being 1000 Kgs, the total calorie output is 3640 x 1000 = 36 Lacs & 40 thousand only (36,40,000) that’s three million 640 thousand calories only for international readers understanding.
Isn’t something strikingly wrong in continuing with non-native seed wheat cultivation using advanced chemical fertilizers? Think about it!!!
What is the legacy we are leaving behind for our planet, our country, our soil, water resources, people, food security, & sustainability for our future generations?
Why don’t we do responsible and accountable Agriculture & Consumption that is healthy, nutritious & yet leaves behind abundance & living soil and rich water resources?
The introduction of the dwarf wheat varieties developed by American Scientist Norman Borlaug in Mexico in the 1960s in India's agriculture sparked the process of desertification of the farmlands. The dwarf wheat crop process as explained above and the introduction of urea as the nitrogen fertilizer in the days of Green Revolution licked the fertility of the soil in a few years.
By taking more land under agriculture, the overall food sufficiency of our country has improved. However, those lands cultivated by urea eventually lose their microbes & microbial activity and their water-retaining capacity.
If we need to rejuvenate the soil, we have to return to traditional farming. Otherwise, we will never achieve sustainability. Using traditional Desi seed and methods for cultivation on virgin lands, unspoilt by pesticides and chemicals, we can return to higher nutrition, health benefits, yield etc.
Global Climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide are yet another aspect that has influenced a shift in seasons, temperature, and, therefore, the agriculture patterns and increases in water requirement compared to ancient traditional methods.
Like the sowing of the seeds in October (using the Uttara Nakshatra monsoon winding upriver or groundwater) allowing the crops to settle down & start growing in November, which was the onset of the winter phase. But, now the rain pattern has changed, and winter does not seem to set in until December. Therefore, there is a marginal requirement of water to grow these seeds even in the traditional way.
Sardara Singh Johl, a Padma Bhushan-awardee agricultural economist and chancellor of Central University of Punjab, has suggested that if agricultural land in Punjab is to be protected from desertification, the best way is to shift wheat and paddy cultivation to 5 million hectares of land in the Indo Gangetic plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal
According to data from the World Food Federation, 3.1 per cent of land in the world is affected by salinisation and 3.4 per cent of land by excess sodium. The Asia-Pacific region is at the forefront of these figures, with 6.3 per cent and 8 per cent of land salinisation and sodium excess, respectively. More than 9 million hectares of land in India is suffering from salinisation.
Following the Green Revolution of the ’70s, the focus on wheat, rice & refined flour is one of the many reasons Millets got knocked-out of the regular staple diet. There are 100’s of millet varieties within the main types. Of this, about 7 varieties can be grown across India in all types of soils.
Known for their climate-resilient features millets are broadly classified into two categories Major & Minor. Major millets include the likes of pearl millet (bajra) and sorghum (jowar). Minor millets include finger millet (ragi), kodo millet, barnyard (Sanwa) millet, Little millet, proso millet & Foxtail (Kangni) millet etc.
We must consider consuming and promoting Millets, one of the oldest foods known to mankind from the earliest civilization.
Millets are ideal for several reasons. They are rain-fed and do not need excessive moisture due to their climate-resilient character or DNA. They use significantly less or hardly any water for harvesting and is full of nutrition. They have a weak gluten molecule and are hence much recommended for gluten intolerant people. They are high on antioxidants and have a low glycemic index; therefore digests & gets absorbed very slowly compared to others such as rice and wheat. Millets help in lowering blood glucose and insulin levels. Some are rich sources of calcium, and others are rich in iron and other nutrients.
Millets can help support good bacteria in your digestive system, reduce your risk of colon cancer, reduce the risk of heart diseases, in better digestion, anti-cancer properties, help regulate blood pressure,
As to how and why could be another article dedicated to Millets. In which I can give you my views in detail on this Amazing Crop and its immense benefits!!
I wish to keep this article and its focus on asking whether the way we farm wheat is that responsible as a citizen of this planet?
If consuming this product allows our conscience to be guilt-free.
Are we not responsible for taking some impactive action at a personal and community level to stop the harm done to the environment, soil and health for us & our future generations? ….think about it
Sachin Mahadik — 12:50 PM
Wonderful article. Clearly relates to present day calamities like untimely monsoons due to climate change, pollution rise due to stubble burning and farmer suicides due to crop failure/loans/poverty. We should look and work forward towards the resurgence of millets.