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Conservation technologies in farming
By Zafar Samdani

PRESSURE on the productivity of agriculture has been increasing the world over because of the rising population in many countries, and Pakistan, with its explosion of population, has been feeling the pinch more intensely than many other nations.

The count has gone up from about 50 million people to 150 million in the years between 1960 and 2005. The populationís food needs cannot be met by traditional methods and inputs of farming any more because land is required to produce substantially more than before while traditional practices were required to cater for limited populations.

In the four and half decades referred to above, the performance of the countryís agriculture has been regularly criticized but not really for cogent reasons because the sector has shown growth of about three percent per year. This has been achieved mainly because of attention to inputs, mechanization of the sector and to some extent, improved crop management though admittedly improvements could have been more.

Successive governments have accorded high priority to agriculture but lack of continuity in policies and often, unimaginative policies have blocked the potential of the sector. Still, Pakistanís agriculture has not done badly because constraints have been overwhelming.

This rate of progress is no more sufficient to feed people. Considerably more produce is now needed from the farming sector. On the other hand, per acre availability of agriculture land has declined; water resources have also shrunk.

This situation has inspired agriculture scientists to undertake intensive research to increase productivity of land, minimize use of rapidly shrinking resources and, in the process, find a better deal for the tillers of the land to meet the challenges of present times.

Their answer over the last about two decades has been conservation technologies mainly comprising laser levelling, Zero Tillage and Bed and Furrow cultivation. These technologies were introduced in Pakistan over a decade back but their adoption has been slow, indeed due to reluctance in the initial years. The government did not pay them any attention with the result that farmers tuned to traditional cultivation, were left cold by prospects of change.

The Zero Tillage (ZT) saves expense and energy of farmers to the extent that the cost of land preparation is reduced by about Rs2,500 per ha, consumption of diesel is made more efficient by about 50 litres per ha, water is conserved by 20-25 per cent and yield is boosted by up to 20 per cent.

One of the banes of Pakistanís agriculture is late sowing which, in the case of wheat, reduces produce. Conservation technologies enable farmers to undertake cultivation on time and ensure that the next crop is not delayed by factors other than conditions outside the scope of management by human beings like extreme and unfavourable weather.

Further, while the traditional system of broadcast sowing limits plant population, the ZT increases the number of plants in the land. These two developments, uniform and timely sowing automatically enhance quantity of produce from the land. The usefulness of the ZT cannot be overemphasized in a country with rapidly shrinking water resources and which needs to produce much more than before.

Similarly, the Bed and Furrow (B&F) planting has a positive impact on wheat and cotton crops. While its affect on yield is relative less, about 10 per cent productivity increase, water is conserved to about 30 per cent. It restricts crusting of soil and gives land longevity for productive cultivation. Cotton sown on beds provides stronger roots to plants, uses less water and increases the size of the crop.

The technology was developed by the UN organization CIMMYT in Mexico where nearly 90 per cent of wheat on irrigated land is now grown on beds most rewardingly; laser levelling is of New Zealandís origin. Pakistan has successfully indigenized these systems. Unfortunately, Pakistan still has only about 6,000 acres of wheat under B&F system.

The Laser Levelling has, however, caught on though mainly in Punjab province because of the interest government has taken in its promotion with an approximately Rs1,000 million project which is currently being implemented as joint undertaking by farmers and the government of the province.

The Laser levelling equipment is being provided to farmers under the project. Its propagation would hopefully go a long way towards increasing produce, enhancing farmerís income, counter poverty (that is turning rampant in rural parts of the country because of low income from land for small farmers and tenants) and generally has a positive impact on the agriculture of Pakistan.

The laser technology, besides having the same rewarding impact on land and profitability for farmers, has the added advantage of increasing cultivated area by eliminating dykes and ditches. All these technologies reduce production costs, enhance efficiency of land, minimize labour for irrigation and sowing and conserve water resources.

Precision land levelling has been described as a process of grading and smoothing of land to uniform plane surface that Ďminimizes cost of production, ensures better degree of cultivation accuracy in shortened time, saves irrigation water, ascertains uniform seed germination, increases fertilizer efficiency and resultantly, enhances crop yieldsí. Irrigation time is almost halved by the process; cropped area is extended by about two percent.

It is in view of these benefits for agriculture that the Punjab government has come up with a project to provide 1, 500 laser units in irrigated parts of the province. Private sector has also been involved in the project to improve service delivery and build the capacity of farmers and service providers for sustainable technology transfer.

These technologies are exactly what Pakistan needs if a genuine effort is to be made for meeting the nationís food from with in the country. However, what is happening is far from satisfactory. Availability of machinery at inexpensive rates needs to be ensured for the largest number of farmers is to covert to them.

A majority of farmers is hesitant in abandoning traditional practices and moving in to areas they regard as unknown and view with suspicion unless the results of these technologies, for that matter, any other developments, methods and techniques of sowing are convincingly communicated to them. The government should consequently back the programme with extensive and continuous training of farmers and persuade them to convert to these technologies.

There is also the need for supporting the production of the needed equipment at a cost affordable for farmers. The bulk of the members of the farming community that has made the shift are big landlords but considering that a large percentage represents small farmers, the importance of inexpensive machinery with maintenance underwritten by producers is essential and vital for wide adoption of conservation technologies.

But more important than any other aspect is a comprehensive and coordinated plan for propagating their use. Laser levelling is being supported by Punjab government but other provinces also need to undertake its induction in the fields on a priority basis. As for other technologies, they have not been promoted affectively even in Punjab despite the fact that planners and managers of the sector are aware of their usefulness for agriculture, the mainstay of the province.

The Zero Tillage is gaining ground but, as statistics show, at an extremely lethargic pace while Bed and Furrow system has been left almost totally ignored. The onus for failure of their widespread use rests with both big land owners and the government. Unless the former quickly adopt them and the later comes up with plans and projects for their introduction across the country without further delay, they would be failing in doing their duty towards Pakistanís agriculture, meeting the food needs of the population and, as the technologies offer better income to farmers, to work for the amelioration of poverty.

Source: The DAWN;

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