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.

The blog was originally posted on IFPRI.org

Let the Dhara flow: GM mustard is pro-farmer and pro-science

Abhijit Kar Gupta

After years of wait and regulatory scrutiny, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s regulator for transgenic products, has finally recommended the genetically modified mustard seeds named Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11 (DMH-11) for commercial release. The seeds contain genes from a bacterium that facilitate hybridization, with the aim of creating more high-yield mustard hybrids. In 2010, GEAC had approved Bt Brinjal, but the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) did not permit its commercialization. We hope that this time, the government will respect scientists’ recommendation and allow farmers to grow DMH-11 in their fields.

Once again, anti-GMO activists are vociferously opposing GEAC’s decision. They claim that GM (genetically modified) seeds are not good for human health. Anti-GMO advocates have been stoking public fears about the safety of GM foods ever since the first GM crops reached the market in the United States in 1990s. Even after 25 years, there is no evidence that GMOs are harmful for human health. India imports thousands of tons of GM edible oil (and other GM food items) every year, but we do not know of a single verified case of illness or death attributed to genetic alterations. There is strong scientific consensus that GM crops are safe to eat and no different from their conventional alternatives in their health effects. Denying this evidence is as unscientific and anti-intellectual as denying climate change.

Opponents also claim that transgenic seeds lead to increased use of chemicals without offering any yield gains. This is also an unsubstantiated claim based on selective reading of evidence. Pest-resistant GM seeds (whose plants produce an insecticidal protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt) do lead to reduced use of pesticides while herbicide resistant (Ht) seeds may result in increased use of herbicides. Overall, GM seeds lead to the reduced application of active chemical ingredients to crops. GM crops are safe for the environment.

The third argument against GMOs is distributional: GM technology is anti-farmer and pro-multinational corporation. According to this claim, farmers have nothing to gain from GM technology. They lose control over genetic material, only to pay hefty premiums on GM seeds that require higher expense on herbicides, but do not offer better yields or better protection from pathogens. However, it is difficult to believe that farmers in India and elsewhere would be so hapless. The facts point to a very different reality. In India and in many other parts of the world, millions of small and large farmers have readily and voluntarily adopted genetically modified Ht and Bt seeds of cotton, soybean and corn, even when GM seeds are expensive and they have other choices. This revealed preference of millions of farmers across the world makes it hard to believe that GM technology is anti-farmer.

The fourth and a related argument against the use of GM technology in agriculture is that it can give too much power to large companies like Bayer and Syngenta, which own many of the patents. However, these concerns do not apply to DMH-11 or Bt Brinjal as they have been developed by government research institutions in India. Furthermore, even if this were a valid concern, giving up on this technology entirely is unwise. We can deal with each of these potential problems directly.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence for net benefit and minimal risks of GMOs, but the government of India continues to ignore mainstream science in following an extreme version of the precautionary principle advocated by critics of transgenic crops. This extreme precaution has raised the regulatory costs to a level that only large firms can pursue this technology. Critics of GM technology demonize large firms, but ironically, they have helped to create a regulatory environment where only the “demons” can survive.

GMOs can be used to increase crop yields, benefit the environment and make crops more nutritious. Indian farmers are eager to use GM technology and our scientists are ready to deploy it to more crops. It would be both pro-science and pro-farmer if the government and honorable courts allow the technology to take root.

Avinash Kishore is a Research Fellow in IFPRI's South Asia Office in New Delhi. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of the institution. This piece was originally published in The Business Standard.

Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana: Exploring Opportunities to make Agriculture a Less Risky Business

Participants at the conference
Participants at the conference

This blog was first posted on the India Food Security Portal

Agriculture is undoubtedly risky, and the risk of a bad year discourages farmers from investing in high-yielding activities. By building resilience, agricultural insurance can help farmers improve their productivity and provide food security. The Indian government has therefore implemented a new agricultural insurance scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY). On December 21, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation (SDC) jointly organized a workshop on the PMFBY. The workshop brought together policy-makers, experts from the insurance industry as well as academics to identify innovative approaches and technologies to strengthen India’s agricultural insurance sector.

Workshop participants were provided with an overview of the PMFBY, expectations from the insurance industry, and an introduction to insurance in the context of a broader portfolio of risk management strategies. The PMFBY is improving on the former insurance scheme in various ways, but still faces a number of challenges, including low participation rates among farmers who are not automatically enrolled by taking a loan, no clear guidelines on how to settle disputes between yield estimates from crop cutting experiments versus remote sensing technologies, and payments being made too frequently for insurance products to be sustainable.

The participants discussed new technologies to improve loss assessment and reduce basis risk (the risk that a farmer experiences a loss but the insurance product does not pay out), including geo-referenced photography through smartphones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and satellite data, which were applied as part of the PMFBY by the RIICE project in Tamil Nadu.

The workshop discussed the need for insurance to cover only extreme risks, and hence presented opportunities for the PMFBY to link with resilience technologies such as paddy residue management. In particular, IFPRI noted that conditioning insurance premium subsidies on farmers not burning their paddy residues helped reduce burning in several districts in Punjab and Haryana. Participants further discussed how to use technology to improve the sampling for crop cutting experiments (CCEs), which are used to establish the area yield index, the backbone of the PMFBY. Finally, experts expressed a need for joint efforts in integrating technology into the PMFBY, and IFPRI will coordinate a proposal in understanding the use of technology in PMFBY.

The workshop yielded a number of key outcomes and conclusions including the following:

  1. Technology can contribute to the sampling and transparency of CCEs. A large portion of PMFBY coverage is based on an area-yield index. To estimate the yield in a given area, the PMFBY samples several sites and carries out a crop cutting experiment (CCE). The data from these CCEs needs to be accurate and available to insurance companies and farmers alike; technology can help improve the transparency of data collection and the real-time availability of the data, for instance by posting videos of the CCE online. Remote sensing technologies can further improve the sampling of CCEs and reduce the number of CCEs to be conducted while improving accuracy at the same time. At the same time, there is a need for guidelines on how disputes are settled in case satellite-based yield estimates are different from those obtained through CCEs.
  2. Yield estimates on the basis of technology should not be a black box.  For technology to be used in loss assessment on a large scale in a program like the PMFBY, it is important that all stakeholders know how the loss assessment is done, and that there is standardization in doing so. This requires proper documentation of how the technology is being used in loss assessment, and it is important that technologies are being validated and replicated.
  3. It should be clear that farmers will not receive money every year.An insurance product that pays farmers every year is not sustainable. Farmers are not sufficiently aware that they cannot receive a payment every year, and there is a role for policy-makers to communicate this. Insurance is not a welfare scheme that can pay a small amount every year; insurance is meant to provide larger payments to help farmers cope with losses in years that have seen unexpected shocks.
  4. Insurance should explore linkages with other risk management strategies.Insurance is a tool to help farmers cope with extreme risks. Smaller risks can often be mitigated by good agricultural practices and technologies, and for risks that cannot be mitigated, savings and credit instruments provide farmers with a way to cope. To encourage farmers with insurance coverage to keep managing their risk also in other ways, subsidies on insurance premiums could be conditioned on farmers adopting better practices and technologies. Agro-advisories provided along with insurance could play an important role in advising farmers how to mitigate their risks.
  5.  Technology can help improve products beyond sampling for CCEs.The PMFBY aims to also cover losses related to other aspects than crop yield, for instance pre-sowing risks, mid-season adversaries and post-harvest losses. There is a need to explore how technologies can help in providing coverage for such risks. In addition, technology can help transition from block-level to village-level and ultimately even individual-level insurance coverage in order to reduce basis risk.
  6.  There is a need for longer-term notification.Insurance companies need to be notified – meaning that the insurance company is the main insurance provider in a district – every year. Due to the short duration of an insurance companies’ presence in a district, insurance companies cannot invest as much in their relation with farmers and the insurance infrastructure on ground as they would if the duration of a notification in a given district were longer.
  7.  There is a need for more coordinated pilot projects.The final conclusion of the workshop was that there is a need for a more coordinated approach, in which the different organizations who participated in the workshop join forces, and standardize the use of technologies across a number of pilot projects, thereby leveraging each other’s activities. IFPRI can potentially play a coordinating role in this joint effort to improve the use of technologies in the PMFBY.

All presentations from the meeting are available here.

Technologies for Maize, Wheat, Rice and Pulses in Marginal Districts of Bihar and Odisha

Farmer in the field at Nalanda District, Bihar. Source: (Flickr) Divya Pandey, IFPRI
Farmer in the field at Nalanda District, Bihar. Source: (Flickr) Divya Pandey, IFPRI

Despite rich in natural resources such as water, fertile soil, mineral reserves and sun,  Bihar and Odisha have not been able to capitalize upon their vast resources due lack of infrastructure (like roads, power and markets), concentration of the poor population with high density in most parts, weak institutions (such as credit, insurance, education and extension) and weak governance.

A recent chapter on Technologies for Maize, Wheat, Rice and Pulses in Marginal Districts of Bihar and Odisha summarizes the current state of agricultural productivity and the potential of different technologies in two of the most economically backward states in Bihar and Odisha, India for their principal crops, rice, wheat, maize and pulses. Focusing on marginal districts in the two states, the chapter assesses the suitability of different technologies to uplift the areas (districts) out of their current low level equilibrium (in terms of production performance) and thereby raise the standards of living.

The authors identify the marginal (backward) districts for these crops based on current yield and its performance over time. Subsequently, the choice of technologies for marginal areas for each case is analyzed ex ante. In this approach, the potential is assessed under conditions in which a given technology might not be widely adopted currently but has a comparatively high potential to deliver upon adoption.

The short listing of technologies for these crops has been done based on a clearing house approach in which, in consultation with different stakeholders, the potent technologies for districts have been chosen.

The identified technologies for

Rice: Varietal substitution towards (climatic) stress-tolerant, high-yielding varieties; Mechanized Direct Seeded Rice (DSR) technology; mechanization of agriculture promoted by custom hiring centers - specific promotion of the self-propelled paddy trans-planter machine; and use of integrated nutrient management, involving use of both organic and inorganic fertilizers.

Maize: Hybrid seed (particularly high yielding single cross hybrid seed).

Wheat: Surface seeding technique for rice-wheat systems; Zero tillage wheat with Resource Conserving Technologies (RCTs); and Laser land leveling (LLL).

Pulses: Stress-tolerant high-yielding varieties; inter-cropping of pulses with other crops; and technologies such as line sowing/seed drilling/zero tilling.

Following this, through a structured survey of the households, the reasons behind slow or poor adoption of available technological innovations were examined. The profile of the identified technologies in terms of their uptake over time is looked at, besides assessing the role of complementary inputs that affect the feasibility for the respective areas, as well as the prospects for adopters of technology to multiply. The real opportunities and constraints for technology adoption are gauged directly from the farmers, including their aspirations about crop choices and the technologies that exist to grow them. It was found that maize and pulses are the crops that farmers currently aspire to get into.

It was found that in both states, there is generally a significant lack of awareness of agricultural technology, more so in marginal districts of Odisha. Some modern technologies, like hybrid rice in Bihar, have become quite well known to the farmers, while others, like Systems of Rice Intensification, in spite of having existed for quite some time, have not yet broken the information barriers.

Authors highlight that farmers and farmers belonging to the lowest caste fare badly, both in awareness as well as adoption of technologies. Translation from awareness to adoption has been quite difficult for most technologies.

In general, the technologies related to varietal adoption have been comparatively successful in this regard. In many others, as they get more complex and there is a greater need for complementary inputs, adoption of certain technologies, even in the presence of awareness, has been difficult.

The chapter highlights that policies for technology promotion in the marginal districts have to take into account the current state, as well the aspirations, of the farmers. These aspirations relate both to the crops/activities that farmers want to engage in as well as different technologies that they want to adopt but cannot because of constraints.

Given the evidence of the disconnect between awareness and execution, a holistic approach taking into account the whole process of adoption from information to support in adoption will be needed. The state of the farmers dealing with illiteracy, small land sizes and social barriers mandate a tailored approach in technology choice for the lagging districts in Bihar and Odisha.

To take or not to take, risks in technology adoption

Womnen farmer in rice field in Nalanda, Bihar, India. Source: (flickr) Divya Pandey/IFPRI
Women farmer in rice field in Nalanda, Bihar, India. Source: (flickr) Divya Pandey/IFPRI

It is widely believed that increased usage of new technologies directly affects the advances in agricultural development. The uptake and use of new technologies is highly dependent on several context-specific factors. Among other important factors, farmers’ perceptions of risks associated with the new technology as well as their ability or willingness to take risks greatly influences their adoption decisions. Farmers in developing countries face a wide range of uncertainty, not the least of which arises from climate variability, including droughts, which represent one of the most pressing constraints to rice production in unfavorable environments.

Despite the heralded benefits of new agricultural technologies such as drought tolerant cultivars (DT), widespread adoption of new technologies is often a slow process. Some factors that influence adoption decisions may not be directly visible, such as farmer preferences regarding uncertainty. When it comes to new technologies, uncertainty arises due to both risk as well as ambiguity. Risk arises because, while almost all new agricultural technologies tout increases in mean productivity, many perform optimally only under certain conditions. Deviations from these conditions may result in not only reduced yield benefits vis-´a-vis the traditional technology but also increased variance. Ambiguity, on the other hand, arises because new technologies are unknown and unproven in the minds of prospective adopters, who generally do not know the yield distribution of the new technology. Combined, aversion to both risk and ambiguity may lead to production decisions that are incongruent with deterministic profit maximization.

In a recent IFPRI Discussion Paper, Risk and Ambiguity Preferences and the Adoption of New Agricultural Technologies authors Patrick Ward and Vartika Singh analyze various behavioral parameters related to risk and ambiguity aversion collected through field experiments in rural India. The experimental design allows for the identification of several different parameters, accomplished over a series of five experiments, each comprising a set of choices between two options with different real payouts. Specifically, the authors find that risk aversion alone does not sufficiently describe individuals’ behavior, but rather they also find that individuals have a tendency to weigh outcomes differently and demonstrate aversion to potential losses. Using gender-disaggregated experimental data, the authors demonstrate that women are both significantly more risk averse and loss averse than men. Contrary to some previous findings in different contexts, Ward and Singh find no significant evidence of ambiguity aversion.

Coupling these behavioral parameters with a discrete choice experiment designed to study preferences for (DT) rice, they observe that farmers’ risk and loss aversion interact with their perceptions about the potential risks and losses associated with the new seeds. They observe that both risk aversion and loss aversion significantly increase the probability that farmers will choose the newer seeds: Farmers were more likely to experiment with new seeds that provided some form of yield benefit, whether it was a reduction in variability or protection against low-probability, high-impact extreme droughts. The role of risk and ambiguity preferences seems straightforward when it comes to a technology like DT rice, since the technology yields benefits specifically targeted to farmers with value functions, sensitive risks and potential losses. Considerable scope remains to explore the role of risk and ambiguity preferences on other agricultural technologies, especially ones in which the technology is less embodied in the physical product.

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