Poisoning Our Lands

Capstone Environment Taluk

As a society, we need to be aware of the consequences of relying heavily on chemical fertilizers and their subsequent abusive usage. What’s at stake?

It was oven-hot noon at Shahpur as Pasha carefully tossed ‘masala’ to his grassy crops. He was listening to songs playing from his phone which he kept in his shirt pocket as he hummed along. Occasionally, he would casually check for any worm or pest infestation. Suddenly he noticed a huge patch where the crops had become wilted. He panicked but it was too late. The masala is urea that he was using, a widely used and highly subsidized fertilizer that every farmer seems to adore within this region. The colour of his crop turned dark green due to added usage of nitrogen leading to infestation by rice leaf folder, that glues itself to the leaf and folds it.

Heavy use of fertilizer encourages rapid multiplication of Leaffolder caterpillars. Chart from College of Agriculture, Bheemarayanagudi

Shahpur is located in the Yadgir district, the northeastern belt of Karnataka, that has vast stretches of fertile soil. However, the region is also predominantly dry. Farmers use fertilizers to increase yield, however lack of understanding has generated immense trouble for farmers who overuse fertilizers for production at Shahpur and adjoining regions.

“There are many pests that are attracted towards dark coloured crops. The dark tint only comes by supplementing them with nitrogen-based fertilizers. The lava folds the leaf from either side and stops the surface sunlight, leading to crop failure,” says Ankit Sharma, business development officer at Dhanukaagritech Ltd, a pan-India agro-chemical manufacturer and a friend of Pasha. Ankit believes that farmers like Pasha are often clueless of such consequences.

“The abuse of fertilizers (urea) modify the natural nutrient composition of these crops which weakens their immunity. Higher levels of nitrogen in the tissue increase the crop’s vulnerability to such attacks typically by sucking pests. Finally, to control these attacks, the farmer ends up using larger quantities of pesticides.” “Its sort of a rip-off that everyone seems to overlook,” Mr Sharma concludes with a look of seriousness on his face.

Prices for the three major fertilizers sold at Shahpur taluk, Yadgir, Karnataka (February 2019)

The Assistant Director of Agriculture Rayatsamparkkendra (RSK) at DanappaKatnalli Shahpur he explained that the ongoing usage of fertilizers for greater gains and production has started after the introduction of irrigation systems. “The farmers want quick and better results. It’s understandable. However, cheap prices of highly subsidized urea are leading to contamination. Earlier the prices were regulated by the Government of India, now these prices are controlled by the manufacturing companies. They produce and promote a few specific ones (fertilizers) for their profits.”

India is the third largest producer and consumer of fertilizer in the world, after the USA and China. Although the increase in production following the green revolution has direct links with fertilizer consumption, the consequences are now being felt after many decades, with problems such as soil erosion, contamination of land and water bodies, destruction of soil microorganisms and soil infertility amongst many others. Intensive cultivation and heavy usage of fertilizers have made the situation worse. Subsequently, there have been frequent reports in many parts of India showing a deficit of not only the macronutrients (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) but also within micronutrients for instance (sulphur, magnesium, and calcium). Macro and micronutrient fertilizers refer to the quantity of nutrient needed by plants. Macronutrients are required in relatively large quantities by plants, whereas, micronutrients are required in much lesser quantities.

The Indian Government has undertaken several initiatives and schemes in order to better the present situation by spreading awareness and encouraging farmers for a balanced use of fertilizers. These initiatives among others include the usage of complex fertilizers as opposed to single nutrient fertilizer,  encouraging farmers to use phosphatic and potassic fertilizers, and promoting bio-fertilizers and organic manures. The government stressed on balancing the nutritive value of the soil. This is because complex fertilizers provide two or three primary nutrients in which nutrients of at least two are in chemical combination. For instance, Diammonium Phosphate provides both Nitrogen and Phosphorus. Further, mixed fertilizers are physical mixtures of the straight fertilizers and are considered agronomically better.

Act of God

Hasan Patel likes to spend his evenings while roaming the mandi (market) area of Dorunhalli village. He is lean, in his mid-30’s and carries an ever-smiling expression. He greets with a handshake and a welcoming pat on the back. A few years ago, he lost a significant portion of his cotton crop a few months ago. He invested 1 lakh rupees for building a borewell and buying seeds and fertilizers. However, the borewell today remains covered and his land barren. The only thing that helped Hasan was his woodworking skillset. It was shocking to see his present condition compared to, when he introduced himself merely four months ago he was doing well then. So what happened to him suddenly?

Major manufacturers at Shahpur taluk are MCF and Nagarjuna LTD.

“The crop failed. I was later told that the reason my cotton and toor suffered was due to root burn. There was no water and the water from the Almatty Dam would only release in a gap of every five days”, he said. Prof H V Rudramurthy works in the department of soil sciences, Bheemarayanagudi. He is an enthusiastic young man, who has written several papers on ‘soil fertility and use of NPK’. He explained the impact of irrigation and its link with fertilizer abuse: “The overuse of low-quality fertilizer containing nitrogen increases the levels of soluble salts in the soil.

These salts accumulate and lead to fertilizer burn. What happens here is that a large amount of fertilizers prevents the plant from absorbing water. When this happens, they require extra water to wash away the excess fertilizer. If they don’t get the water, the crop ends up burnt. However, if they do put extra water, the water ends up contaminating its nearby surroundings.”

Immigrants

Kallappa has have been a farm worker for many years now. His employer, Mr Mohan farms on 80 acres land; a large part of which is leased. Mohan is amongst the many hundred farmers and agricultural labours that caught the ‘migration train’ to the adjoining districts of Karnataka in search for greener pastures. He migrated from Andhra Pradesh in 2004.

Kallappa and his family work as Agricultural labours for Mr Mohan

“I began cultivating cotton in 2004, however it failed. My brother blamed the soil which we thought was infertile. For a few years, I started applying cattle manure and worm castings to the soil. It’s been 15 years since, and we have done well”, Mohanproudly tells. In a country where the average land size of the farmers still stands at less than five acres, Mohan is amongst the few well-off farmers in the area. However, a problem arises when immigrants begin to overuse fertilizers at impractical levels to manipulate yields. Prof Rudramurthy explains, “The major problem lies with the ownership of these lands. Many big farmers don’t own these lands. They worry little about the long term impact as most of them switch to another land when their lease period ends. Thus, they abuse the use of fertilizers for massive production and ruin the land in the process.”

The process of immigration in Karnataka began around 20 years ago when farmers from Andhra Pradesh began moving to neighbouring regions of Karnataka such as Yadgir and Raichur. During the early years of the 21st century, Andhra Pradesh witnessed a rise in outmigration of farmers. Scanty rainfall, depleting groundwater levels, barren farmlands led to farmers migrating to the neighbouring states. They realized that massive fertile lands in the region those were largely unutilized. They began renting those lands for farming.

Recommended usage

The general usage recommendation for crops is given after periodic lab testing of soil samples. It depends on the crop that is sown, the variety of the crop, the texture and fertility of the soil and the application of manure. It further depends on the irrigation levels. The department of agriculture of each state usually follow the recommendations provided by the State Agricultural Universities, for instance, the University of Agriculture in Raichur. The department of agriculture has set up 5 RSK in Yadgir district. The ministry of state agriculture in collaboration with University of Agricultural Sciences circulates the recommended usage report to all farmers and dealers through RSK (Rayat Sampark Kendra) and the University of Agriculture located at Bheemarayanagudi every three years. However, to sharecroppers and workers like Mr Kallappa, the government schemes don’t make any difference. The soil samples are only taken for medium and big farmers.

Urea is cheaper than any other fertilizers or nutrients added to the soil and it helps to produce larger yields due to which the farmers are tempted to use more of it for early and large yields. This indiscriminate use irrespective of scientific prescriptions leads to several adverse implications on soil, crop quality and overall ecosystem This further affects the balance of the nutritive value of the soil.

  • Recommendation chart issued by the DoA

Awareness

Literacy rates of farmers in the northern part of Karnataka are lower as compared to the southern part. According to the 2011 census, the average literacy rate of a little more than 50% at 51.83 at Yadgir. Farmers use two different fertilizers which contain the same components leading to contamination. For instance, both Urea and DAP contain urea. This increases the number of nitrogen molecules within the soil. However, the lack of awareness and farmers obstinacy towards official guidelines leads to more problems. Dr R. Lokesh is the Dean (Agri) College of Agriculture located at Bheemarayanagudi. He explained the issue of unawareness amongst the farmers and its scope. He believes that the dealers who are the first point of contact for farmers confuse farmers. He said, “The problem of uneducated dealers is crucial. The knowledge about soil and its fertility are also obtained by the farmers through word of mouth by neighbours and members of family and experience. They ignore the guidelines issued by the university or the government.”

If the dealers themselves aren’t educated, the point of educating the farmers inevitably fells short. The law states that the minimum qualification of any dealer who sells and distributes fertilizers is BSC graduate or BSC diploma. Despite this law, old dealers continue to sell it, without qualification or employing anyone who is competent. “We have started a program by the university is to train the dealers. We have scheduled the implementation of this program by 2020. There are 425 licensed dealers at Shahpur taluk,  and the license needs to be renewed every 3 years.

“The duration of the course is six months for farmers and dealers and around 100 shop owners have been educated so far,” he confirms. The difference between the fertilizers that are sold by the government to the farmers is Rs 200 lesser than the ones sold by the private dealers. This rate variation is per pack basis. However, the government only provides micro-nutrients and not NPK which is more widely used. Moreover, complex fertilizers reduce the risk of fertilizer poisoning, for instance, in DAP the percentage of nitrogen is 18% and 42% for phosphorus. Mop gives 40% of Pottasium. the compound which has mixed ratios of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium is healthier for soil. Similarly, mixed fertilizers have an equal distribution of  N, P, K. 18:36. The government outlets mainly sell the micronutrients to the farmers hence, macronutrients are purchased only from the dealers.

Pan India Phenomenon

According to the 29th report by the Standing Committee on Agriculture, called “Impact of chemical fertilizers and Pesticides on agriculture and allied sectors in the country”, only 292 districts in India account for 85 per cent of all the fertilizer consumption in India. Besides, there are discrepancies in the use of fertilizers on the basis of chemical ratios. The current consumption ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) is about 7:3:1 as opposed to the recommended ratio of 4:2:1. The situation is worse in major agricultural states such as Punjab and Haryana where macronutrient usage is as high as 31.5.0:1 and 28: 6:1 respectively.

Constant decline in soil fertility status, mainly due to nutrient removal by intensive cropping systems in amounts far-exceeding their replenishment through fertilizers and manures during past few decades is considered one of the serious second-generation problems of the Green Revolution. Farmers often use nitrogen-based fertilizers such as urea or even complex fertilizers such as DAP and MOP while ignoring the application of potassium and other vital nutrients. A report by the Ministry of Agriculture and farmer’s welfare (VII) states, “Some diagnostic surveys carried out in rice-wheat growing areas of north-western India revealed that farmers often apply greater than recommended rates of N to sustain the yield levels that were attained earlier with even less fertilizer use” Dr B S Dwivedi is the head of the Division of Soil Science & Agricultural Chemistry at Indian Agricultural Research Institute. He highlights the ways urea and other nitrogen-based fertilizers can be used as supplements than, as the sole form of nutrition. “Due to the affordability of urea, it is abusively used irrespective of what the prescriptions guides. Urea application should be invariably balanced not only with phosphorus and potassium but also with micronutrients and secondary nutrients. The application must strictly be prescription based and farmers must be explained the potential consequences of the imbalance of  nutrition.”, he insists. The farmers, however, continue to accept and follow the guidelines by neighbours and members of family and experience. They ignore the guidelines issued by the university or the government due to fear of losses. They don’t want to risk by implementing something new.

Human Hazard

This goes without saying, chemical fertilizers can pose a serious impact on the overall productivity and health of the consumer. Though excessive use of urea is mainly seen in states with relatively stronger irrigation network such as in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, there have always been growing concerns about its excessive use in other parts of India as well. The question of imbalanced quantities of single nitrogen-based fertilizers has always been raised by agriculture scientists due to its sustainable adverse effect on soil, health, and environment. A joint report by Government Degree College for women, Guntur, college of Agricultural Engineering, Bapatla and Department of Chemistry, GPT, Gannavaram, Andhra Pradesh states the impact these chemical fertilizers can have on human health.

Crotax-36 is widely used by farmers

The report states that: “Residues of chemical fertilizers in massive amounts may affect the central nervous system, respiratory and gastrointestinal system of human beings. Chemical residues also cause depression, insomnia, oral acetomatism, myoclonus and hyperreflexia of man. Accumulation of excess nitrogen in plants causes an infant disease, methaemoglobinemia. Amines produced from the nitrogenous fertilizer cause cancer in human beings. Aluminium at high levels leads to birth defects, asthma, Alzheimer’sand bone diseases. Calcium toxicity results in developmental and neurological toxicity, growth retardation, cognitive delay, kidney, nervous and immune system damage. Cobalt only at high levels leads to lung damage. Boron causes low sperm count, nose, throat and eye irritation.”

Chemical fertilizer can contaminate waterways and sources of drinking water.

Another report by Ramakrishna in affiliation with GITAM University on Groundwater Pollution due to overuse of Nitrogenous Fertilizers states that a significant amount of applied fertilizer move into the deeper layer of soil due to filtration as nitrate and ultimately joins the groundwater. The prodigious and incessant use of nitrogenous fertilizers has resulted in a concentration of Nitrate-N ions into the groundwater higher than the World Health Organization limits. This rising trend in nitrate concentration is found to be directly related to the increased use of nitrogenous fertilizers. If the concentration of Nitrate-N in groundwater reaches 50 mg/l, it may cause gastric cancer in adults. The function of the central nervous system (CNS) may also be adversely affected by nitrate-rich water. High level of nitrate in groundwater has a correlation with gastric cancer, nervous system impairment, and birth defects. The report further states that a feasible and viable check on this problem can be initiated by assessing and marking the areas which are more prone to contamination as a result of excessive use of Nitrogen fertilizers. Once identified, these areas could then be enforced with restricted fertilizer usage.

Alternatives

Mr Anil Kumar owns a small fertilizer shop at Raichur taluk. He also holds a bachelors degree in agriculture. His shop lies adjacent to a Playhouse- a massive green-canopy on an acre land, which he owns. He grows multiple crops without using any fertilizer. “I started canopy farming two years ago. I have never used any chemical fertilizer on my crops. I began this setup on a trial basis, however, I was amazed at the profits I generated the first year.” “But I also sell chemical fertilizer to others.as not many farmers can afford a poly house or even time. For this same reason, they use chemical fertilizers to produce more output. I try to educate as many farmers as I can, who comes to buy fertilizers from me, but only a few follow”

Mr Anil Kumar owns a fertilizer shop 7km from the main town of Raichur. He also owns a poly-house where he grows organic crops.

Mr Anil believes that better regulation on manufacturing companies can be more beneficial than restricting consumers. There have been numerous attempts by the state governments including the Karnataka government to strengthen and restore soil testing laboratories in various districts. Farmers are encouraged to test their soil periodically and apply fertilizers based on the deficiency of nutrients in the soil. Hence, by promoting and making the research and development (R&D) wing stronger, the government can introduce sustainable and cheaper alternatives to farming. The Indian government in 2012 gave much importance to the use of fertilizers in order to enhance productivity. However, to solely depend on fertilizers in order to enhance productivity can be risky. “Farmers must be encouraged to recycle the biomass and to adopt conventional and sustainable methods such as crop rotation and intercropping. They need to adopt green manure and chemical fertilizers should be used only at soil test recommendations by the university or the government,” concludes Dr R. Lokesh.

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