Earth Day 2018: Solar-powered irrigation can boost rural development, but also poses risks

- Avinash Kishore

Irrigation is one of the most effective means for boosting agricultural production, but powering the withdrawal of groundwater can be an expensive and polluting process. Solar panels provide a cleaner energy source for pumping groundwater than traditional diesel-based pumps, and their cost has rapidly fallen in recent years—exciting policymakers in South Asia about their promise as a viable and sustainable tool for rural development.

To mark Earth Day 2018 (April 22), here is a look at what our research reveals about the solar pumps and sustainable agriculture: In the Indian state of Bihar, the pumps have been an effective means for boosting wheat yields that is cheaper than diesel pumps. But appropriately implementing this technology does not come without challenges.

Encouraging the adoption of solar pumps in diverse conditions across South Asia calls for tailored approaches that leverage the benefits of the technology without creating negative impacts like market distortions or the depletion of natural resources.

Installing solar pumps has very high capital costs that most farmers in the region cannot afford. Once installed, however, solar panels provide energy for free, so that over a pump’s life-cycle, energy from a solar pump works out to be cheaper than that from a diesel pump. To address this barrier to entry, governments in South Asia are offering high capital subsidies on solar pumps.

These subsidies have been successful in increasing the use of solar pumps, but also create market distortions that limit their broader viability. If solar pumps are a viable technology, policymakers should shift their focus from subsidizing the upfront costs of buying to finding innovative ways to finance the purchases. IFPRI has worked closely with a private firm experimenting with different technological and financial innovations that hold great promise to make solar pumps an affordable purchase, even for smallholder and women farmers. But as long as heavy subsidies for solar pumps exist, such promising innovations have little chance of succeeding.

The nature of the costs of owning and maintaining solar pumps also has potentially negative impacts for the sustainable management of groundwater. Since farmers invest heavily and it costs almost nothing to maintain and use a solar-powered pump, the incentive is to pump as much water for irrigation as possible and to increase crop yields as much as possible. If solar pumps are promoted aggressively in water-scarce areas of South Asia, they can aggravate existing groundwater depletion problems.

Many state governments in India are trying to address this issue by bundling a subsidy on solar pumps with subsidized micro-irrigation systems that boost efficient water use. But this effort alone won’t suffice: Using water efficiently does not necessarily inhibit its overuse.

Instead, farmers need an incentive to save the energy produced by their solar panels for something other than pumping groundwater. Net-metering solar panels measure how much power is used out of the total produced. This technology can provide farmers the option of selling surplus electricity back to the grid—an incentive to conserve solar power, and with that, water. This approach may be the only way to make solar pumps a sustainable option in water-scarce areas.

In the Eastern Gangetic Plains of Bangladesh, India, and Nepal Teraii, governments should promote solar pumps through financial and business process innovations to make them financially viable for the greatest number of people. In the rest of South Asia, where groundwater is scarce, solar pumps should be promoted only with available net-metering. And in canal commands that regulate irrigation systems, small solar pumps connected to water storage structures can promote more efficient use of water and support high-value agriculture through better water control.

While not a panacea, solar pumps equipped with the appropriate technologies and supportive policies can help farmers across South Asia manage water more responsibly, and should be a part of any sustainable agriculture strategy.

Avinash Kishore is a Research Fellow in IFPRI's South Asia Office in New Delhi.

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GFPR 2018 India Launch: India’s Time to Focus on Farmers

Against the backdrop of rising concerns over farm distress in India, and a farmers’ protest movement demanding policy succor, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) launched the latest 2018 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) at a policy dialogue held in New Delhi, India, Friday.

Archana Singh / IFPRI

The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog Vice-chairperson and the chief guest, Rajiv Kumar, echoing the theme of this year’s report, admitted that the global trade can be a double-edged sword, which has its benefits as well as disadvantages. “How do we address this challenge of meeting local needs and requirements with increasing global trade?” Kumar said addressing farm distress with the right policies is now a priority for the Indian government. “We in the NITI Aayog and the government have decided it is finally time we must focus only and only on farmers and farmers’ distress…that’s a real issue which is beginning to haunt us... and (the issue is) so amazingly complex.”

According to the GFPR, the rise of anti-globalization politics and policies around the world poses threats to progress in efforts to end global hunger and malnutrition. The Delhi report launch and policy dialogue were held in partnership with premier Indian research institutions, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), and ICAR- National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research (ICAR-NIAP).

IFPRI director-general, Shenggen Fan, in his keynote address, highlighted some of the themes included in this year’s report: the impact of global integration and disintegration on trade, migration, investment and knowledge-sharing. “We don’t want a trade war,” Fan said, adding, “trade war will hurt all, particularly poor and hungry people.” Fan pointed out that nearly 850 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition globally, while 35 million are at risk of famine. He suggested enactment of strong policies to leverage benefits of globalization while minimizing risks to ensure progress towards meeting Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger and poverty by 2030.

Providing an overview of the report’s regional analysis from South Asia, IFPRI-SAO director, PK Joshi, said, “There’s a paradox in South Asia—we are the fastest growing economy and region in the world, but are facing the challenge of triple malnourishment: food insecurity, undernourishment and obesity.” Joshi also cautioned against the rising threat of climate change and its impact on food systems.

Another panelist, Mahendra Dev, director and vice chancellor, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), and IFPRI Board vice chairman, emphasized on the importance of food systems approach in analysis of hunger and malnutrition, and pointed out that global trade has more benefits than risks. “India will benefit more from globalization than protectionist policies. India can and should take the high road against protectionism as it needs the global trade and financial capital for high growth.”

Between 1985 and 2007, trade grew twice as fast as GDP, however, since 2012 GDP and trade have grown at the same rate, said Dev, arguing that recent protectionist measures announced by the United States may lead to a further reduction in trade growth.

Drawing from her own experience as an agriculture science student, panelist Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, senior adviser and head of agriculture for South Asia, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), India, said the current educational system focuses on agricultural productivity and yields but not on farmers’ incomes, leading to an imbalance in the way success is measured in the farm sector. “Green revolution’s focus was more on the farm, the new ambition is to focus on farmers, and doubling their incomes,” said Mehta-Bhatt.

Real-time data, as pointed out in the report, can help in real-time governance, and measurement of the income gap for farmers, which is critical to improving their incomes, she added.

But, policy-making, disconnected from politics, has little meaning. “When you talk of policy and forget politics, it will have very little implication to society,” said session chairperson, Trilochan Mohapatra, secretary, Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE) and director general, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). He expressed concerns regarding some of the structural deficiencies, which impact food security in the country. “Is the subsidized foodgrain (through public distribution system) not reaching the end user? Why does hunger exist? Why are we not able to reach the unreached?”

In his concluding remarks, Kumar from NITI Aayog said, “Thirty-eight per cent of our children are undernourished... and 60 million tonnes of foodgrains are being stocked somewhere while farmers are throwing away their produce.” We need to introspect deeply, and create non-farm employment, following China’s path out of agrarian crisis. “For the next few years, we need to concentrate on curbing hunger and malnutrition, and make sure that our farmers come up to the same level as their urban counterparts,” he added.

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What Happens when Scientists Design Soil Health Cards for Farmers

The Ministry of Agriculture in India is placing all bets on the 86 million USD Soil Health Card Scheme to provide nutrient recommendations to farmers based on soil health tests, with the expectation that it promotes balanced nutrient management practices. The Soil Health Card (SHC) scheme was launched by the Government of India in 2015. Under the scheme, the government has mandated the provision of SHCs to every farmer at an interval of two years (previously three years). These cards contain soil test results and crop-wise recommendations of nutrients and fertilisers required for the individual farmer to help them improve productivity through judicious use of inputs. These results are based on soil tests that are being conducted on a grid basis - samples are drawn in a grid of 2.5 ha in irrigated area and 10 ha in rain- fed area with the help of GPS tools and revenue maps. About 100 million cards have been printed and distributed to farmers across the country, with the counter increasing with every passing second (PIB, 2017). These results are presented to farmers in dual-coloured single-side printed A4 sheets (here).

Photo Credits: Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam, CIMMYT

Do farmers understand these cards?
In 2017, researchers on the CSISA project undertook several focus group discussions with farmers in Bihar and Odisha, to seek answers to the following questions. Are farmers able to:
i) understand the card
ii) trust it to provide accurate information and finally,
iii) change nutrient application behaviour as per the recommendations provided in the cards (we ask these questions in one-to-one surveys with farmers who are then brought together for FGD’s)
With a total of 21 FGD’s involving more than 100 farmers, and 5 Key Informant Interviews in the states of Bihar and Odisha, we conducted user tests of the present form of the SHCs. Those farmers who had received the cards had kept them in safe custody after having received them and had only taken those out on the day of our interactions when they were informed they were requested to carry those to the meeting place in the village. The interactions lasted for about an hour with questions directed towards assessing the usefulness, attractiveness, comprehensives, relevancy and persuasiveness of the cards.

What do we find?
There were two major barriers to comprehension of the SHCs – even for the most well-read respondents (most of whom had studied at least until the primary grade and one of whom was an MBA) in our sample. Both logical and lexical semantics were misplaced in the cards, with information relevant more for the scientists than for the farmers. The present cards are more technical than user-friendly and contain more information than is needed for action with the result that lack of relatable visuals and crowded texts are driving away any attention from the relevant information contained in the cards.

Too scientific
Farmers were often unable to distinguish between the different sets of tables mentioned on the card. The fonts were found to be too small and most farmers faced difficulty in reading the text in less than 8-point size fonts. Respondents were not familiar with all nutrients and micronutrients listed on the cards. For example, the soil results table in the present table begins with details about their soil’s Ph, EC and OC content – all three of which was gibberish for them in the local language. With a little probing and assisted reading, some farmers could follow and identify the nutrients listed further, albeit with local reference terms.
In both the states, we found a mix of cards in English. Hindi and Oriya languages and where there were translations, they were mostly phonetic translations of the English words. For example, Ph (which is the numeric scales used to specify the acidity or basicity of a solution) in English was represented as /f/ in the local language. Literal translations of some of the most common nutrients restricted the interpretation for those farmers who could read but not comprehend. Some farmers could infer the values mentioned, with prompts from our end. They read the recommended values of nutrients very carefully, after being explained.
For those who could not read, it is a different story altogether.
Recommendations for input application were of nutrients (and not the final fertilizer name that is prepared from these combinations), which not more than a handful of farmers in our sample understood. Nitrogen was inferred as Urea while Potash was inferred as DAP by the respondents– in reality, they are only components of the overall fertilizer. Such interpretation can be very risky for most farmers who are unable to distinguish between nutrients and fertilizers.

Not from my field!
The lack of site-specificity of the test results was an overpowering determinant of the lack of trust the respondents had in the results provided on the card as well as the recommendations provided therein. When the values were in the range of their existing practices, recommendations were perceived as correct. Whereas, when the values were different from their expectations or practices (particularly in Odisha where the urea recommendations were almost twice of their present application rates in the villages we went to), the immediate response was to discard the recommendations in lieu of the fact that soil samples were not taken from their respective fields.

The first step to prompt action is to generate understanding. If farmers do not understand the content, there is little value addition of the program. As a result, we took some efforts towards redesigning the SHCs to simplify the contents and to also make it more attractive for the relevant audience by using more visuals. Visuals help overcome language barriers, and hence should be the focus of a scheme that aims to reach out to the masses. With the assistance of development communications professionals, we redesigned the present cards, reduced the total amount of text and increased the font size of the texts, used symbols to represent levels (low, medium and high) and added several illustrations (such as pictures of fertiliser blends) to inform the less educated. These new designs were retested over 2 rounds in Bihar, in coordination with the Bihar Agricultural University (BAU), Sabour. Several iterations were also made in the new designs to account for suitable colours and clearer symbols. A final design, that farmers found attractive and easy to understand was submitted to the BAU for all their SHC work moving ahead. This new design was also launched by the Union Minister of Agriculture, Shri Radha Mohan Singh on the 24th February 2018.
These cards are expected to be distributed to several hundred farmers under the University’s program area and our follow up steps in this regard are to undertake an assessment of the receiver’s experiences with the new cards, their interpretability and its eventual impacts on nutrient application behaviour. Further research and more concrete evidence on the usability of these SHCs will help inform the policymakers of the relevant changes that are needed to be made in the national Soil Health program to encourage greater adoption.

Vartika Singh is Project Manager in the Environment, Production and Technology Division of IFPRI and Sujata Ganguly is Research Consultant with International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Nepal Vegetable Seed Study: Household Survey

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Farmer tending to a field at Sunsari District, Nepal. Credit: Divya Pandey, IFPRI

This study contains data that were collected to assess the status of vegetable seed production across Nepal. The data contains information from 600 households from 20 districts in Nepal. This dataset provides an in-depth look at vegetable seed systems and market in Nepal. The data collected includes information on household demography; land utilization, plots cultivated and inputs used; risk preference; consumption and expenditure; household income and assets; shocks; and agricultural credit. Information on the types of vegetables grown and farmers’ knowledge concerning the vegetable seeds they utilize for production is also included.

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See companion dataset on Retailer Survey

Wish to increase net farm income? Root for institutional agricultural credit!

Farmer in Uttrakhand. Credit (flickr): Divya Pandey/IFPRI

More than half of India’s workforce is engaged in agriculture and its allied activities. However, the condition of the agricultural community, in the country, is not very encouraging. Lack of accessibility to formal credit pushes the farmers to reach out to the informal credit sources, mainly the local moneylenders, avail credit at exorbitant interest rates and thus, entering into a debt trap.

Indian agriculture policy aimed to reduce the farmer’s dependence on informal credit and increase the accessibility to formal credit. Various policy initiatives have been taken by the government in this regard starting from nationalization of large commercial banks (1969 and 1980) and establishment of Regional Rural Banks (1975), National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (1982), to farm credit programs like the Kisan Credit Cards (1998–1999) and the Interest Subvention Scheme (2010–2011).

Efforts have also been made to strengthen the formal credit system through programs like Priority Sector Lending (PSL) and recently with financial inclusion schemes Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJSY) and Swabhimaan. Although these initiatives have indeed made a positive impact in the agriculture credit system with continuous increase in the agriculture credit flow in the rural areas, yet the informal credit sources still account for more than one third of the agriculture credit flow.

Of late, there has been rising demands, in different states of the country, for waiving off farmers’ loan as a measure to deal with the debt crisis. Some state governments have already announced the waivers. However, this appears to be a very short term solution to the current problem. There aren’t much evidence that suggest that loan waivers have a positive impact on either the farm/ household income or their expenditures. Alternatively, increasing farmers’ access to formal credit mechanism is believed to empower them, help them channelize their resources better and in turn boost the agricultural economy. A recent IFPRI discussion paper Institutional versus Noninstitutional Credit to Agricultural Households in India: Evidence on Impact from a National Farmers’ Survey tries to understand the role of institutional farm credit on farm income and farm household consumption expenditures.

The findings of this study reveal that farmers with smaller land size find it difficult to borrow from formal credit system in the absence of collateral and thus resort to borrowing from informal sources. Caste also seems to be a factor affecting the access to formal credit sources as most formal borrowers were from the General and Other Backward Classes (OBC) and fewer from the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST).

Apart from this, male-headed household were found to be receiving greater share of institutional credit as opposed to their female counterparts. Educated households had access to formal financing sources more than others. For example, households that are aware of the government schemes such as Minimum Support Prices (MSP) were more likely to obtain credit from formal sources.

Access to formal credit was found to have a direct relationship with the net farm income and per capita household expenditure. Increase in access to institutional credit was seen to increase the farm income and also the consumption expenditure. Thus, accessibility to formal financing could significantly improve the overall economic welfare of the agriculture households.

The study, suggests that existing policy and program initiatives must be scaled up in order to expand the reach of formal credit systems and increase farmer’s accessibility, especially of small and marginal farmers, to institutional credit. As highlighted by the findings of the study, concerted efforts needs to be taken to reduce the social discrimination in the financial sector based on gender and caste. Literacy levels, especially financial literacy levels, need to be improved considerably. Convergence among different policies would significantly help in bringing out desired results and increasing the share of institutional credit in the agricultural credit system. It’s time to break the debt cycle for the farmers and give them their due as economic and social welfare of farmers is a prerequisite for a healthy and progressive India.


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