• Amidst the ongoing farmer’s protests, questions are being raised on the sustainability of paddy-wheat cultivation, especially in Punjab.

Extent of paddy-wheat monoculture in Punjab

  • Monoculture is the agricultural practice of growing a single crop, plant, or livestock species, variety, or breed in a field or farming system at a time. 
  • Wheat and paddy constitute about 84.6% of the total area planted to all crops compromising on pulses, maize, bajra and oilseeds cotton. That ratio was just over 32% in 1960-61 and 47.4% in 1970-71.

Issues with Monoculture

  • Destroys soil nutrients – Naturally, the soil contains nutrients and other functions. Monoculture eliminates all such functions due to the practice of only planting or rearing one type of crop or animal breed, respectively. As a result, there is no range of insect and soil microorganism species due to the lack of crop diversity that promotes insect and soil microbe biodiversity.
    • Results in the use of harmful chemicals – With the nutrients in the soil eliminated, farmers have to introduce artificial products that could replicate the functions and nutrients lost like the introduction of large amounts of herbicides, fertilizers, bactericides, and insecticides.
      • The chemicals leave traces in crops meant for human consumption, meaning they end up in the food chain and could result in serious health consequences due to bio-accumulation.
    • Pollutes groundwater supplies – Even if the plant is harvested, the chemicals remain in the soil. Since they are inorganic, they cannot be processed by microorganisms in the soil into organic matter. They leach through the ground and eventually pollute groundwater supplies and altering ecosystems that may be great distances away from the location of use.
  • Adversely affects and alters the natural ecosystem – The overuse of such inorganic chemicals forces organisms to evolve and develop resistances to artificial insecticides and herbicides. As more and more inorganic compounds continue to be poured into the soil, it continues to affect natural ecosystems detrimentally.
  • Destroys the overall soil’s degradation and erosion – The use of chemical fertilizers in monoculture farming also destroys the soil’s health. When the crops are harvested, there remains no natural protection for the soil from erosion by wind or rain. Also, the topsoil does not become replenished, mainly because of erosions.
  • Requires lots of water to irrigate –Since monoculture results in the topsoil cover being harvested all at the same time, the topsoil loses elements that could help it retain moisture. Contemporary monoculture agricultural practices, therefore, require vast amounts of water to irrigate the crops
      • Punjab’s groundwater table has been declining by 0.5 meters per annum on an average due to paddy and the state’s policy of supplying free power for irrigation. It has encouraged farmers to grow long-duration water-guzzling varieties like Pusa-44
  • Creates pesticide resistance – When crops are infested by pests, farmers apply pesticides to kill these unwanted organisms. But some pests always manage to survive
  • Decreases biodiversity – Monocultures are based on eliminating biodiversity of plants or animals on a piece of land.

Way Forward

  • Reducing acreage area for wheat and promoting cultivation of alternate crops like coarse grains in Punjab will lead to crop diversification in the region bringing in better soil resilience and added nutritional benefits to the locals.
  • Shifting Paddy cultivation to eastern and southern states, planting of only shorter-duration varieties of paddy crop which mature early without any effect on production, metering of electricity and direct seeding of paddy further address the issue of monoculture and depleting groundwater.

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