India’s farmers in a vicious cycle of devastation

Floods have wiped out some small farmers’ crops more than once, forcing them to use fertiliser to boost growth and recoup costs. But the long-term effects are even more costly.

When Avinash Koli* lost 220 tonnes of sugar cane in the August 2019 floods, he learned an important lesson. Three months later, he recultivated two acres – about 8 100m² – and “doubled the use of chemical fertilisers to ensure it grows faster”. Koli’s sugar cane grew at an unprecedented rate, resulting in a big harvest.

When he attempted this “success” again in 2021, he lost another 200 tonnes of sugar cane to the July floods that year and learnt another lesson. “I made a big mistake of growing sugar cane continuously for 10 years and using excessive chemical fertilisers.” He lost his crop as well as the money he’d spent on fertiliser.

This year Koli has to “either increase the chemicals and ensure the sugar cane reaches a particular height that won’t be affected by flood, or switch to crops which harvest by that time”, he says.

Koli has been harvesting his sugar cane every 12 months since 2019, rather than every 18 before that. Using synthetic fertiliser has enabled him to do this. “If I don’t harvest the crop within a year, I won’t be able to repay my farm loans.” For every acre of sugar cane, he used about 40 sacks of fertiliser – about 800kg – made up primarily of macronutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and sulphur. “Almost five years back, when there were no floods in this region, we used half the chemical fertilisers and the soil remained good.”

27 January 2022: Avinash Koli abandoned sugar cane to grow soybeans, but he has to use as much chemical fertilisers and pesticides on his new crop. 

Fearing more floods, he shifted to soybeans in January but couldn’t avoid using fertiliser. “Suddenly there’s a lot of cold, which isn’t good for soybeans.” He had to find a solution, and quickly. 

“For the past two years, we are spraying more pesticides because of the rapid climatic changes,” he says, 150 litres of water and pesticides every month. There are several reasons Koli has done this. Mostly, after two floods, he owes 750 000 Indian rupees (about R150 000).

As you walk across his four-acre field in the Kolhapur district of Western India’s Maharashtra state, there’s an increasing presence of saline salts in the soil. “This is all a result of fertilisers and water staying in the fields for long,” says Koli. He is a resident of the Shirol administrative block of Kolhapur, which agriculture officer of the region Swapnita Padalkar said had 94km² of saline land in 2021. 

“We’ve observed a tremendous rise in the use of chemical fertilisers in the past 10 years,” Padalkar says, because of farmers wanting higher sugar-cane yields in less time, as well as a larger agrarian crisis. Globally, 46.3 million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser was used in 1965. This increased to 190 million tonnes in 2019. “At one point, farmers will have to choose between intensive chemical use and sustainable agriculture, because soil nutrient quality is depleting,” she says. 

Agrarian disaster

Suhas Jadhav’s* farm is 10km from Koli’s field. Jadhav has used pesticides 15 times in the past four months, spraying an average of 375 litres of more than three pesticides mixed with water on his two-acre sugar cane field. 

While he’s having a bumper harvest, the salinity of his fields is rising. And he was surprised to see a fungal disease called wilt, which causes the crown leaves to turn brownish-yellow. “Despite using so many chemicals, my sugar cane still caught the disease,” he says, perplexed. Jadhav did not consider using an organic solution. Instead, he again used pesticides: more than 75 litres of four different types. 

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Jadhav is not alone. Pesticide consumption reached 4.2 million tonnes worldwide in 2019, an 80% rise from 1990. China was the biggest consumer, using a staggering 1 310kg per km², followed by the United States. 

His field hasn’t flooded, but “with the rising industries in this region, the number of pollutants are increasing”, says Jadhav. A new disease affects his sugar cane every year. “Farming has now become like gambling. You never know how much you will recover, or if you will recover anything at all.” 

Systemic failure

Yellappa Naik, 62, from Kolhapur fell victim to poor farming practices and what he calls “systemic failure”. “By the time I realised chemical farming is a systemic problem, it was too late. From the year 2000, I’ve been trying to cultivate crops on my 1.5-acre field, but nothing grows.” 

He has lost count of the money he’s spent trying to restore nutrients to the soil, “from restocking the field with 3 000kg of black soil and tilling the land using an earthmover, to completely removing the saline contents. Everything failed.”

Naik waters his field from the polluted Panchganga River. “There’s no check on the untreated industrial discharge from the textile plants.” The river is his only source of irrigation water and he says the effects aren’t immediately visible. “After four to five years, you can see changes in the soil.” And the roots of the crops stop growing effectively. 

When Jadhav saw the same problem, he began researching the chemicals available on the market. “Within four days of planting sugar cane, I feed 100ml chemicals to every crop, ensuring the roots grow faster,” he says. 

27 January 2022: A farmer points out the fungal disease killing his sugar-cane crop.

Ironically, when the floods submerged Naik’s field, he was happy. “I thought the floodwater would wash away all the salts.” But that didn’t happen. 

Mohit Zambare*, a farmer from Maharashtra’s Sangli district, doubled his use of fertiliser after the 2021 floods. “Sugar cane is destroyed when the floodwater enters its stalk,” he says. Zambare can’t switch to other crops as they don’t earn him enough money. “To save sugar cane, the only option I have is to excessively increase the use of fertilisers.”

Ironically, chemical fertilisers contribute to climate change but climate change is driving the rise in fertiliser use – a vicious cycle of devastation. A 2018-2019 government report found that 978 500km² of land is already degraded in India – almost 30%. And the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that up to 15 000km² of farmland globally is taken out of production every year because of soil salinisation. In irrigated areas, this translates to $27.3 billion (about R410 billion) in lost crop production. 

Natural solutions

Kusum Gaikwad, 67, from Shirol’s Jambhali village turned the tide when her organic farming experiments succeeded. She saw her soil turning saline in 2020, but couldn’t afford the 58% rise in the price of chemical fertilisers. 

“My organic sugar cane not only survived, the soil quality improved,” she says proudly. It took 15 months for her sugar cane – she grows a variety known as CO 86032 – to mature and she reported a harvest of 77 tonnes from her 1.5-acre field. Her field yielded less than those treated with chemicals, “but what will you eat when the land has turned barren?” She saved more than R4 100 per acre, and “while every sugar cane field in my surroundings reported wilt disease, nothing happened to my cane”.

Ravindra Herwade, a soil chemist at Shirol’s Datta sugar factory, says several factors are responsible for the increased soil salinity. “Over-irrigation and a poor drainage system are the major factors in Shirol that cause massive salinity.” Put into context, “if the farmer gets water once in 15 days, then they will water the field for a longer time to ensure the crops don’t dry out”.

He suggests installing sub-surface drainage systems, but the setup is costly for individual farmers. “It’s cheaper when there’s a larger patch of land. We need more farmers’ collectives and a cooperative model,” he says. 

3 February 2022: After seeing a rise in soil salinity, farmer Kusum Gaikwad shifted to organic methods. Here she is feeding her sugar cane with a homemade organic concoction.

Another major problem with monocropping and the shift towards cash crops, says Herwade, is that India is the second-highest sugar cane-producing country globally, with about 55 000km² – roughly 6.74 million two-acre fields – of land under cultivation. Western Maharashtra is renowned for its sugar cane production, with farmers competing to produce the maximum harvest per acre. 

Shifting to organic farming isn’t an easy option. Koli, who grows some organic vegetables for his family, says it will take a collective effort. “If today I decide not to use chemicals, that won’t help because the water from the nearby farmer’s field will enter my field, carrying all the chemicals.” This leads to pathogen attacks, he says, forcing farmers to rely on pesticides. 

Jadhav is seeing new diseases among his crops. “Our fields have become lab rats. The people who run these chemical fertiliser industries are profiting from our crisis. But everyone will be affected because we all need food to survive, and it is grown using these chemicals.”

He is back in his field, trying four different types of pesticide. Another disease, another pesticide. 

*Names have been changed to protect the farmers’ identities.

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