Sun, Mar 17, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Indian farmers think big,
but grow micro to enrich their soil

Agriculture in Karnataka State is enjoying a spurt in productivity as farmers rejuvenate the soil using micronutrients

By Mark Tran  /  The Guardian, BENGALURU, India

Illustration: Lance Liu

Bursting at the seams, choked with traffic, luxury towers under construction advertising helipads — Bengaluru, India’s IT capital, basks in the limelight in the southwestern state of Karnataka. Yet the agricultural sector is also attracting attention for a spurt in productivity following a period of stagnation.

Since 2009, India’s eighth-largest state, with a population of 61 million people, has pursued an agricultural program called “Bhoo Chetana,” or soil rejuvenation, that has seen productivity shoot up by between 20 percent and 50 percent, according to state officials. The gross value of crop production increased by US$130 million in 2011. Its achievements have been recognized by the central government and attracted the interest of the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh and, further afield, the Philippines.

Such gains are particularly striking as Karnataka’s mostly smallholder farmers — who typically farm 1 to 1.5 hectares — depend heavily on monsoon rains, which have become increasingly erratic due to climate change. Such “marginal” farms in India comprise 62 percent of all holdings and occupy 17 percent of farmed land. Karnataka, where 56 percent of the state’s workforce is in farming, has the second-largest area under rain-fed agriculture after Rajasthan.

Some areas in Karnataka have suffered drought in six of the past 10 years. Growth in the farm sector in the past three years could hold lessons for other dry land areas — 80 percent of the cultivable area in the world depends on rain-fed agriculture.

The name Bhoo Chetana was coined by Suhas Wani, principal scientist at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in Hyderabad. ICRISAT specializes in so-called orphan crops such as chickpeas and pigeon peas for dry regions. His is one of 15 centers under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Bhoo Chetana’s genesis came through a chance encounter between Wani and Karnataka’s minister of agriculture, Umesh Katti, in 2003. Katti had expressed interest in Wani’s work in water conservation for farming as he was looking for ways to revive Karnataka’s farm sector, which had stagnated after droughts, when he learned of Bhoo Chetana. So, with determination for change at Karnataka’s top political levels, and the scientific knowhow, the program was born.

The rationale is that farmers can increase productivity and income through the judicious use of micronutrients, such as zinc, boron and sulfur, while simultaneously reducing the use of fertilizers, such as nitrogen and potash, that contaminate ground water — one of the unintended consequences of the green revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.

“In the first year we took samples from six districts, by the third year we had samples from all 30 [Karnataka districts],” says Wani, who has spent most of his working life at ICRISAT.

“By the end, we had 95,000 soil samples of about 2kg from selected villages, which were analyzed in our labs. It’s the first time soil sampling has been done on this scale in a developing country,” he adds.

The farmers collected the samples, encouraging grassroots participation from the start. Once the samples were examined, Wani and his colleagues recommended how much fertilizer and micronutrients to use for different areas in different districts.

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