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Agrochemical Policy Gamble can Cost Soil Health for Good: Pradip Dave, President, PMFAI

KJ Staff
KJ Staff
Pradip Dave, President, PMFAI

Agrochemicals are an important and effective agriculture input, which though comes at a later stage of the crop cycle but has a significant impact on agronomic yield and profit margins.

There is no denying the fact that being of chemical origin, as the name suggests, indiscriminate use of agrochemical components can affect soil health. It is a long-standing problem that all stakeholders in the agriculture sector are worried about and are working on. As the country and the world gears to produce more plant-based protein to meet the growing demand, it is equally important to pay heed to the policy environment that is further threatening the prospect of recovering soil health of the already limited Indian agricultural land. There are two key aspects to it: a) allowing registrations for imports of readymade pesticides formulations without registering technical grade pesticides (active ingredients) in India, and b) a subsidised fertiliser regimen that is heavily tilted towards urea.  

Neither all agrochemicals are harmful, nor any quantity is harmful – several studies have established how the detrimental effects of chemical herbicides on soil depend on the degradability, bioavailability, bioactivity, concentration, adsorption and desorption, persistence, and toxicity of agrochemicals along with texture, vegetation, tillage system, and organic matter of the soil. For example, using herbicide in soybean plantations can affect the growth and activity of bacterium Bradyrhizobium and consequently, the vital processes of nitrogen (N)-fixation.

However, studies have found that in pure cultures, the growth of bacterium Bradyrhizobium japonicumis not affected by herbicide chlorimuron ethyl, even when used at 150 times higher concentration than the recommended field rate.1This is an important observation that can help lentil / legume farmers choose the right kind of agrochemical that will ensure biotransformation activities such as biological nitrogen fixation (BNF), ammonification, etc. take place and make the soil ready for the next crop. Owing to lack of such deep information, farmers end up using products that serve their immediate needs, missing the long-term view.  

Pesticides imports policy lacks information transparency 

One of the biggest arguments against agrochemicals usage is that it kills soil. However, the current pesticide import policy that India follows have unheeded such assertions – the problematic provisions allow registration for imports of readymade pesticides formulations without registering its technical grade pesticides (active ingredients) in India, making it easy for the importers to elude the penalising provisions of the Insecticides Act, 1968 and the Insecticides Rules, 1971. Without registering the active ingredients used in the formulations, there is no way to know the quality of technical grade material used in the imported formulations as the manufacturing process takes place outside India and manufacturers are at liberty to use technical grade material from any source – the technical grade pesticide can be sub-standard and may not match the specified quality as per the registration guidelines, which can pose danger to the health of soil and environment. 

Notwithstanding the fact that it violates the norm followed by the FAO and the WHO as well as countries all over the world, absence of provisions to register technical of imported formulations robs the country of its legitimate right to know the components that form the basis of the imported agrochemicals. This is because the impurities of technical grade pesticides (active ingredient) are responsible for the quality and safety of its formulation – if the impurity of the  

technical do not comply with the specifications submitted at the time of application and on the basis of which registration is granted for import of readymade formulations, the quality of the formulation will vary. Since safety of the formulation is also a criterion of its efficacy, any variation in the impurity will also affect the overall efficacy of the product.  

Heavily subsidised urea affecting soil’s biological balance  

According to a study that covered in 76 districts and 1,700 farmers of 19 states and published earlier this year by the National Productivity Council (NPC),use of soil health cards has reduced the use of chemical fertilisers by up to 10 per cent and improved productivity as well.2 This is in keeping with the Prime Minister’s call for reducing urea usage by half by 2022.

However, in the current policy environment where urea gets undue advantage of heavily subsidised cost, it seems nearly impossible to achieve that mark, and trends establish that: In 2016-17, India consumed 30 million tonnes (MT) of urea which went up to about 33 MT in 2019-20.3 And that is not unlikely– urea is available at an MRP of Rs 5,360 per tonne, which is less than one-fourth of the actual cost while (please mention a few commonly used fertilisers and their MRP per tonne). As a result, farmers are using this ‘affordable’ means to boost yield, without paying attention to the damage it is doing to the soil that in turn requires more intense use of these products against the ideal ratio of 4:2:1 for nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, much of India has a ratio of 6.7:2.4:1.  

Healthy soil is the precondition to get healthy and nutritious food. A soil health card is an intervention long overdue, but to make it work and improve soil health, India needs to examine its policy framework as much as their on-ground implementation.  

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