Land is a limited resource. To ensure food security for a growing population and to meet increasing demand, it is imperative that there is adequate food production in the country. Chemical substances such as fertilizers and pesticides are used by farmers in a bid to increase crop yield. While pesticides help in getting rid of pests which usually attack crops, fertilizers are mixed with the soil so as to increase its fertility. Fertilizers contain essential nutrients which are necessary for plant growth and its health, such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous. This is of utmost use for farmers who plant crops in multiple cycles without letting the soil ‘re-fill’ its stock of nutrients naturally.
Fertilizers’ usage must be based on geographical conditions
Using fertilizers helps farmers to grow crops on their land continuously without the need to worry about production & yield due to nutrient deficiency. Some fertilizers are even helpful for increasing the water retention capacity of soil. Both organic and inorganic fertilizers are available in the market. Since nutritional requirement varies with crop variety, type of soil, irrigation, rainfall and the climatic conditions etc., the quantity and composition of fertilizers needs to be determined separately for each piece of land and crop. The usage is thus not uniform across countries or regions. Its usage varies with time as well.
Global consumption of fertilizers is on the rise
Globally, the consumption of fertilizers has been on the rise. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the consumption of fertilizers such as nitrogenous, potash, and phosphate fertilizers touched an all-time high of more than 140 kilograms per hectare of arable land in 2016. In India, the Green revolution was a major turning point resulting in the increase of chemical fertilizer usage.
Fertilizers are included in the Essential Commodities Act, 1955
As already seen, there is a myriad number of factors which determine the quantity and mix of fertilizer inputs to be used because of which there is no ideal or standard mix which can be adopted globally. The Fertiliser Control Order, 1985 lays down what all substances can be used as fertilizers in the country. The order also enlists the product-wise specifications, sampling methods and methods of analysis of fertilizers. For instance, the Ammonium Sulphate must conform to the following standard. Because of their importance in agriculture, fertilizers are included in the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 as an essential commodity.
Fertilizer usage has increased manifold since 1970s
According to a study, ‘Fertilisers use in India’ by FAO, India’s fertilizer consumption has increased from less than 1 million tonnes of total nutrients in the mid-1960s to almost 17 million tonnes in early 2000s. It also stated that introduction of High-Yield varieties of seeds in the 1960s helped elevate fertilizer use. Later, in 1973-73, the prices of fertilizers and grains increased due to the oil crisis, as a result of which countries’ formulated policies to improve their fertilizer supplies and enhance food security.
As per the figures submitted in the Lok Sabha in March 2020, there is no specific trend in fertilizers consumption in the country in the past nine years. The data for 2019-20 is up to January only and till then, India’s fertilizer consumption was close to 500 Lakh Metric Tonnes, in line with the consumption figures the year before.
A substantial portion of the fertilizers consumed were produced in India
As detailed in an earlier story, the state governments prepare a monthly estimate of the amount of fertilizers required and submit it to the Department of Agriculture which in turns coordinates with Department of Fertilizers. The Department of Fertilizers prepares the monthly supply plan after consultations with manufacturers and importers to meet the demands projected by the agriculture department. A substantial portion of urea is manufactured in India. The domestic production of nitrogen and phosphate increased from 1.8 million tonnes of nutrients in 1975/76 to 14.2 million tonnes in 2003/04. In 2018-19, Urea production was 240 LMT while that of phosphate and nitrogen were 66.02 LMT and 5.46 LMT. Potash fertilizers are imported completely due to absence of natural resources. The import rose from 0.4 million tonnes in mid 1970s to 2.6 million tonnes in 2003-04 and touched 29.81 LMT in 2018-19. The price of urea is fixed unlike P&K fertilizers whose price is fixed by the manufacturing company.
Many states have reported a huge distortion in usage ratio of chemicals compared to the desired ratio
As per the parliamentary standing committee report titled ‘Study Of System Of Fertilizer Subsidy’ submitted in the Lok Sabha in March 2020, the consumption of urea was in a high distorted ratio as compared to the desired NPK ratio of 4:2:1. The national usage ratio stood at (6.7):(2.4):1. It has also been reported that the consumption in states like Punjab and Haryana where agriculture is dominant was as high as (31.4): 8:1 and (27.7):(6.1):1 respectively. Nonetheless, fertilizer usage in potato cultivation, sugarcane, cotton, wheat, and paddy were among the highest levels among crops i.e. 347.2, 192.6, 176.7 and 165.2 Kg/hectare respectively.
Farmers should be educated on need for soil specific fertilizer usage
The standing committee had stressed on the need for educating farmers for using soil specific fertilizers. It was observed by the committee that farmers lacked adequate knowledge of the nutrient contents in the soil. Irrespective of the nutrient content in soil, farmers used a particular group of nutrients more than others which the committee suspected was because of inappropriate marketing of certain fertilizers which fetch them a higher subsidy.
Soil Health Card will be beneficial if extended to all farmers
Currently, farmers are free to buy fertilizers without limitations. They need not provide Soil Health Card details while purchasing fertilizers. Soil Health Card Scheme was introduced by the government in 2014-15 which provides farmers with the information on the nutrient status of their soil along with recommendations on appropriate dosage of nutrients to be applied for improving soil health and fertility. Under the scheme, biennial assessment of soil status is supposed to be carried out. However, the scheme is only optional.
Standing Committee recommends measures to prevent misuse of Fertilizers
The committee has recommended the government take measures to prevent misuse of the fertilizers. As per the committee, Kisan Call Centres may also be employed to educate farmers on the need for judicial use of fertilizers. Furthermore, the committee has also recommended the transfer of subsidy to farmers directly instead of manufacturing companies. The government, according to a Lok Sabha answer, has already rolled out various awareness programs on using organic fertilizers.
Irresponsible use of chemical fertilizers will result in environmental problems
Excessive use of chemical fertilizers will result in soil acidification, heavy metals pollution, soil compaction, and changes in soil microbiome. This means that the pH level of soil and its density would change resulting in drop in fertility. Bacteria needs to be present in soil for fixing nitrogen in the soil. In short, the plants and soil will be degraded if fertilizers are not used judiciously. The chemicals used also affect the nearby waterbodies and ground water. The farmers may even end up contracting respiratory diseases and skin allergies when exposed to chemicals. Not only are fertilizers expensive but create an eternal dependence on them. In the long run, the farmers will have to pump in more money to pump in more inputs/fertilizers in the polluted soil to grow crops.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in global economic downturn because of which the crude oil prices have dropped. This is expected to have an impact on the fertilizer prices as well.
Will there be bumper harvest in Kharif 2020 amidst COVID-19?
Meanwhile, during April to June 2020 amidst the lockdown, sale of fertilizers was 111.61 LMT, almost 83% higher than the last year’s value of 61.05 LMT. Urea sales had increased by 67% to 64.82 LMT while DAP sale had doubled to 22.46 LMT and complex fertilizers’ sale was 120% higher at 24.32 LMT, as compared to last year, for the upcoming Kharif season. Will this result in a bumper harvest in the Kharif season remains to be seen.