Soil health: change NPK balance through incentives

Delivering the 38th edition of his 'Mann ki Baat', Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "Can our farmers take a pledge to bring down urea use by half by 2022? If they use less urea in agriculture, the fertility of the land will increase. The lives of farmers will start improving." Modi made the statement in the backdrop of 'World Soil Day' on December 5 and the deteriorating health of soil the world over, a key factor contributing to this being the excessive use of urea.

The positive correlation between excessive use of urea and the erosion in soil health is an incontrovertible fact proven by several studies and finds repeated reference in official documents, including the Economic Survey that is released a day prior to the presentation of the Union Budget every year.

The problem surfaced in the 1990s and continues till date. Yet, successive governments have done little to remedy the situation. It is good that Modi has brought it centre stage, but his prescription might do more harm than good.

Currently, urea consumption in India is about 30 million tons (mt). This translates to 13.8 mt nitrogen or N (1 ton of urea contains 0.46 ton N). If urea use is slashed by 50% as contemplated by Modi, this will mean knocking off 6.9 mt N. This will be tantamount to going much beyond merely correcting excessive use.

In agronomic terms, excessive use is typified as imbalance in fertiliser use. Apart from nitrogen, supplied primarily from urea, plants also need phosphate or 'P' and potash 'K' - the two other major nutrients - besides a host of other secondary and micro-nutrients such as sulphur, zinc, magnesium, calcium, etc. Phosphate and potash are supplied by complex fertilisers that contain these nutrients, besides nitrogen, in different proportions.

To get optimum crop yield even while maintaining soil health, scientists recommend N, P, K to be used in the ratio of 4:2:1. As against this, the current use is imbalanced at 8.2:3.2:1. In other words, the actual use of N is 2.5 times the use of P instead of the ideal two times. So, N use exceeds by 25%. This excess can be eliminated by reducing urea use by 7.5 mt, or 3.45 mt of N, whereas if one were to go by Modi's wish, we would end up cutting N by 6.9 mt.

This will tilt the NPK use ratio more towards P and K even with their use remaining at existing level. With increasing consumption (more likely scenario), the imbalance will become even more pronounced. Today, we are grappling with overuse of N relative to P and K. By 2022, we would be grappling with its under-use.

Organic manure?

The prime minister is a staunch advocate of organic manure to replace chemical fertilisers and has repeatedly cited Sikkim (it has completely switched over to organic agriculture) as a role model. Could we consider using it to make up for the loss of nutrients due to the cut in urea use? Well, that is easier said than done. The crucial question is whether organics can substitute fertilisers?

One ton of organics contains 12 kg of nutrients. This is barely 52% of the nutrients supplied from a bag (50 kg) of urea. To make up for one million tons of nutrients, the equivalent quantity of organic manure will have to be 83 mt. Corresponding to 3.45 mt (the extra cut in N), the requirement of organics will be a colossal 287 mt!

Such huge quantities are neither available nor capable of being generated. Even if supplies can be garnered, the logistics of transporting to millions of small and marginal farm holdings spread all over (it would be naïve to expect each farm to be self-sufficient) will pose a daunting challenge. One should also not be oblivious of the cost involved in handling and transportation - apart from the inability of farmers to cope with the stink that goes with its large-scale use.

The government has also not given any clue as to how the stakeholders will be galvanised to bring about reduction in the use of urea. Unlike in the case of neem coating, wherein it issued a gag order requiring all manufacturers/importers to do 100% mandatory coating (before the product leaves factory/port), no order can be issued to farmers to say that they will have to "use 25% or 50% less" urea. To direct manufacturers to supply that much less won't be tenable either.

The only prudent way to do it is by incentivising/dis-incentivising fertiliser use, which is best achieved by suitably dovetailing the pricing policy. At present, the government gives much higher subsidy on urea than the subsidy on complex fertilisers. This, indeed, is what causes the excessive use of urea. The government should reduce subsidy on urea and concurrently increase subsidy on complex fertilisers, inverting the prices and pushing the use of P and K up while pushing N down. In turn, this will increase the efficiency of fertiliser use, enhance yields and improve soil fertility.

In the long run, the government should aim at giving subsidy directly to farmers (instead of the current system of routing it through manufacturers/importers) and letting them decide how to use the money. If the soil needs more of P and K, then the farmer can allocate more of the subsidy to buy complex fertilisers. He can use the soil health card, which the government is giving farmers, to guide his decision.

Prime Minister Modi's thrust on reducing urea use is well-intended, but it should not be overdone. More importantly, it should be achieved within a coherent and well-coordinated pricing policy framework.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based policy analyst)

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