GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico — Developers have come up with a spray made from seven common bacteria and fungi prevalent in India’s soil to biodegrade agricultural waste in the fields of India, enriching the soils and saving thousands of dollars in material and labor costs. The developers expect the spray to help solve India’s air pollution problem, eliminating the practice of burning post-harvest waste, a common cause of smog. Several Indian states began distributing the spray to farms in October 2021 and are already seeing positive results.
What is it and How Does it Work?
Developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in Pusa, New Delhi, the spray was named the Pusa Decomposer. It comprises “seven different species naturally present in the soils.” After many lab trials to identify these species of fungi, IARI found that these seven are “extremely effective in decomposing the stubble for energy and nutrients.” IARI also found it could “[completely decompose]the stubble still left in the fields after the paddy was harvested” in just three weeks. Then, the stubble would integrate into the soil and act “as compost for the next growing season.”
Why is it Necessary?
The great majority of smog that leads to India’s air pollution problem arises from farmers burning paddy stubble after each harvest. This common practice, which began in the 1980s, is popular in the fields of the North Indian states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Post-harvest, lots of stubble is visible on the fields and, it is common for farmers to “burn all the stalks and leaves left over to quickly clear the fields.”
Because of this, India has “26 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities,” and its capital, New Delhi, has the “most polluted air of any world city.” This pollution causes “skin and eye [irritation and severe]neurological, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, lung capacity loss, emphysema, cancer and increased mortality rates.”
The air is so full of pollution that the sky always appears cloudy in these cities, especially during the post-harvest stubble-burning seasons. The issue affects “people from all age groups” and leads to “increased respiratory illnesses.” Also, burning the paddy stubble after each harvest depletes the soil of nutrients that help crops grow better. When farmers burn the stubble, the soil’s top layer heats up to 42ºC, “killing all the beneficial microbes in the soil,” resulting in poor soil health, which can, in turn, lead to lower quality food and water.
Previous Attempts to Stop Stubble Burning
Before IARI developed this fungal and bacterial spray, the agricultural industry put forward a few other solutions. In 2006, a machine called “The Happy Seeder” created for sowing could also get rid of stubble and mulching while scattering seeds across agricultural land.
The Indian government offers a “50% subsidy for small farmers” who want to use the machine, but this is still too expensive for some. Plus, the IARI also found that the machine distributes seeds without uniformity, causing germination issues.
In 2014, farmers were allowed to “sow a [drought-tolerant] hybrid rice variety that could be harvested in 120 days.” Sowing and harvesting this kind of rice would allow farmers to “[plow]fields manually” over a month and to “get rid of paddy stalk instead of burning the residue.” However, because hybrid rice varieties were unpopular, farmers “remained unconvinced of their economic viability” and the attempt failed. Another attempt by the Indian Government was simply to ban stubble burning, making it illegal in 2015, but due to how cheap and fast the practice is, farmers have continued doing it and still do so now.
A Bumpy Ride to Success
The Pusa Decomposer also had a rough start. At first, the IARI would distribute the unprepared solution to farmers and each farmer would have to “ferment and prepare the microbial solution themselves,” but this soon proved ineffective. After the long, multi-step fermentation process, the IARI also expected farmers to spray the solution onto their own crops for two weeks. This led to reports of farmers being unable to “execute the solution effectively” showing a risk of “irregularities in preparing the capsules.”
Regardless, the IARI continued and made the solution into a powder, allowing the introduction of machines to spray the Pusa Decomposer into the fields. The IARI made the machinery “freely available to farmers,” allowing for spraying “in a more uniform way.” This all led to farmers using the fungal spray instead of stubble burning. Now, the IARI has licensed 12 ag-tech companies to use help “integrate the process into Indian society” and some companies have even taken steps further to make the process easier for farmers.
Nurture.farm and #EndTheBurn
One of these 12 ag-tech companies is nurture.farm, a “digital platform with a mission to reimagine sustainability for agriculture and the world.” Partnered with the UPL Group, IARI and IIM-Rohtak, and a part of the OpenAg™ Network, nurture.farm is leading the #EndTheBurn movement to “end stubble burning.” Nurture.farm has a program that provides “an extensive field team of [field partners]to guide [farmers]throughout the process” and give “personalized attention” to all its registered farmers.
It also created an app for farmers to request these services, and with the other 11 companies, it has helped “[save more than]420,000 acres across Haryana and Punjab” from stubble burning. Lastly, thanks to these free, accessible programs, the Pusa Decomposer’s pilot period has reached completion with great success and the agricultural industry sees it as a potential long-term solution to India’s air pollution problem.
– Marcela Agreda L.