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An innovative approach in Indian agriculture can help meet the twin objectives of food and energy security for the country. Along with a strategic drive to modernize agriculture, the 1,000 million tons of agricultural residue produced annually, can be used to manufacture about 150 billion litres of ethanol per year. This can take care of 50% of India's total oil demand says Dr. Anil K. Rajvanshi

Two most important things for a country to survive and prosper are food and energy security for its citizens. Both are linked. I will try to show here how agriculture can provide both food and substantial portion of energy for a sustainable India, and thereby provide wealth and employment in rural India. Real food security emerges when rural poor have money to buy food.

A country acquires food security when it produces enough affordable food from its land for all its citizens. That can happen when enough land is available for food production and agriculture is remunerative.

With a heavy onslaught on the agricultural land by industrialists and builders for putting up industrial and IT parks, malls and huge multi-lane highways etc., there is a very serious fear that our land use for agriculture may be depleted greatly.

We cannot have food security by selling software and industrial goods to other countries and importing food. Certain sections of the government actually think on these lines. With increasing conflict among nations for resources and materials, making food security dependent on food imports is a dangerous concept.

I believe that agriculture can provide both food and energy security, provided the land productivity is increased with high–tech agriculture and provided the youth participates in large numbers in agriculture and allied industries.

Farming for Energy

India produces close to 800-1000 million tons/year of agricultural residues. Most of these residues are burnt in fields to solve the waste disposal problem though a part also goes in fertilizer and animal feed. Burning of residues not only creates tremendous air pollution but also is a waste of an important energy source. There is enough scientific data available to show that the biomass residue burning in the Indian sub-continent is creating a huge brown cloud, which is modifying the weather over India.

These agricultural residues can theoretically produce about 150 billion litres/year of ethanol via lignocellulosic conversion. This can take care of about 50% of India’s total oil demand. Similarly, if we go via pyrolysis oil route, it can provide around 80% of India’s diesel demand. Pyrolysis oil is produced by rapid heating of biomass to 600-7000C and quenching the smoke rapidly to produce oil. This oil, with suitable modifications, is very close to diesel in characteristics. Both these technologies are being actively developed worldwide and hopefully in the near future we will see quite a number of plants producing them.

Alternatively, if these residues are burnt in the biomass–based power plants, they can produce close to 80,000 MW of electricity or nearly 50% of India’s total installed capacity. Biomass power plant technology is very well developed and around 60,000 MW of electric power is produced around the world. In India, there are close to 91 plants with capacities of 6-10 MW and a total installed capacity of about 500 MW. Our Institute was the principal author of this policy, which was initiated by the Department of Non-Conventional Energy Sources, DNES (now Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, MNRE) in 1996.

Besides producing energy, these residues with enough R&D can also become a part of the organic fertilizer industry. Thus, the use of residues from present agriculture can substantially ease India’s present energy crisis and can be a rupees two lakh crore/year industry. At the same time the use of biomass for energy production can also produce about 50 million jobs in rural areas. With increasing agriculture to feed our burgeoning population, more agricultural residues will be produced, which can further help in energy and fertilizer production. 

Farming for energy, therefore, can create huge wealth in rural areas and lead to a prosperous India.

Remunerative Rates for Agri–Residue

For this to happen two things are necessary. Firstly, farmers need to be paid properly for the agricultural residues.  

It is a peculiar aspect of farming that only 25-40% of its produce fetches money and the rest 60-75% are agricultural residues that have to be discarded. No industry can run on such norms where 3/4th of its produce is not sold and in fact, discarded. Yet, for farming we accept these norms.

When agricultural residues are capable of producing very high quality energy like liquid fuels and electricity, they should be given very good price. Our estimates show that with proper pricing of these residues (Rs 3,000/ton) a farmer can easily earn between Rs 5,000–7,000/acre/season by selling them for energy production.

Any marginal farmer can produce agricultural residues even if the main crop fails. The income from these residues can give him benefits even in the case of distress sale of his crop and this is the best hedge against farmers’ suicides. I also feel that unless and until the farmer gets remuneration from his entire produce, farming will never become economically viable. This is an aspect of farming which should be understood by policy planners.

Since the farmers are not getting adequate price for the produce, they are being tempted to grow fuel crops. One of the greatest threats to food security, to my mind, is the diversion of land for fuel crops. The people who have cars have money and they might dictate the use of farm land for growing fuel for automobiles. It is already happening in Africa and Latin America. We as a nation have to guard against the use of our farm lands to be colonized by western countries for growing fuel. 

Besides the use of agriculture residues for producing energy, multipurpose crops such as sweet sorghum should be grown. Sweet sorghum produces food (grain from its earhead), fuel (alcohol from sweet juice of its stem) and fodder (bagasse) from the same piece of land. No other crop produces all three things together. Our Institute has pioneered the development of this crop and we introduced it in India in early 1970s.

Scitech for Agriculture

The second aspect of farming is the need for very high science and technology inputs in it. Thus, it is imperative that modernization of agriculture takes place. Presently, most of the agriculture in India still exists in stone ages. Ancient agronomic practices are used and there is very little mechanization . The problem has also been compounded by the fact that because of land reforms in India, the land holdings have reduced; thereby restricting the use of existing big and heavy farm machines. In fact, this farm size reduction could be a boon in disguise since it can allow precision agriculture, which can reduce inputs and increase productivity. This is becoming popular in western countries.

Very extensive R&D is required to develop efficient farm machinery for small farms. This requires inputs from very bright young scientists and engineers. Presently, all the bright students opt for engineering, medicine, MBA etc, and agricultural sciences and engineering do not attract them.

Therefore, there is a need for an national effort to entice bright students to enter into agricultural engineering. A joint effort of industry and academia is needed in this regard. Because of the special needs of our small farms, we have to develop our own technologies and for that we need the bright minds.

Another major problem of farming today is that farmers’ children do not want to get into it as it is becoming non-remunerative. This is also the reason why farmers are ready to sell their farmland to the highest bidders who are going to use the land for non-agricultural uses. Therefore, there is a general refrain in rural areas that farming is not a dignified profession anymore and so the sons of farmers are not considered to be a ”marriageable commodity”!  Besides being uneconomic, farming is also hard work. By developing high–tech farming equipments like small combines, harvesters, bailing machines etc, it is quite possible that farming can be made less labour–intensive and more attractive to the younger generation. With production of energy from agriculture, farming can become very remunerative. Once farming becomes remunerative, it will also become glamorous. Besides, concentrated efforts need to be made by the advertisement agencies to make it glamorous. This will help in bringing the youth to farming and further help in food security. 

Water Issues

However, for farming to increase so that it can bear the load of food and energy production, adequate water supply has to be ensured. To my mind, supply of adequate water to rural areas and poor regions of the world is a much bigger challenge than energy availability, and this is where young and bright engineers and technologies can play an important role. I feel that rainwater harvesting technology and management should be a compulsory minor in all engineering, and agricultural universities and colleges.

With the coming of the Green Revolution in India, there has been an extensive use of water, resulting in shortage in some parts of the country. There is not only a water shortage, but lack of clean potable water results in millions of deaths every year due to diarrhoea. This is despite the fact that there is enough rainfall. Every year India receives an average rainfall of 4,000 billion cubic metres, whereas the present yearly water consumption is only 650 billion cubic metres or 16% of the total rainfall. Thus, theoretically we have enough clean water, but the rainfall is not evenly distributed over India and it comes in short spells; thereby pointing to the need for rainwater harvesting and storage programs.

However, the issues of rainwater harvesting and its supply to the community in rural areas raise a question of who will own the water bodies. This is a touchy issue and quite a few developing countries are grappling with it. I feel that there is a need for the local governments to develop policies so that rural water utilities can be set up, which can harvest the rainwater, store and clean it, and then supply this water to a village throughout the year. These water utilities may also be able to buy water from the government through the existing canal system. Presently, all the water utilities in India are owned by the government and this leads to corruption in supply of water and its very inefficient usage. In 2003, the Government of India passed a revolutionary Electricity Act allowing, for the first time, the private players to produce, sell and distribute electricity anywhere in the country. This Act has allowed power producers to break free from the clutches of inefficient and corrupt government power utilities. I feel that a similar Water Act will help in the efficient supply of water to rural areas.

I strongly feel that when the farmers are neglected, the long term sustainability of the country is threatened. When farms produce both food and fuel, their utility becomes manifold. In India 65% of its population depends on farming, and with energy from agriculture as a major focus, India has the potential of becoming a high-tech farming community. This will help improve the rural environment and create a better India.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Anil K Rajvanshi is the Director of Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra. He is a graduate of IIT, Kanpur. He did his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from University of Florida, USA. Dr Rajvanshi does research and development work in rural technologies, and writes and lectures extensively all over the world on issues of technology and sustainable development. He is also interested in spirituality and writes regularly on the subject.

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