Paying farmers for carbon credits could nudge them from burning paddy straw 

Properly priced carbon credits would replace subsidies (on electricity and fertilisers) with free marketing pricing, which would discourage wasteful use. Farmers would be frugal. They would conserve and not burn crop residue

The Punjab chief minister said the state authorities have initiated action against a total of 2,923 farmers in 20,729 cases of stubble burning reported till November 1 | Commons

In response to a petition in the Supreme Court for a ban on paddy stubble burning, the Centre has decided to set up a permanent commission for the National Capital Region (NCR) and adjoining areas to tackle environmental pollution. But companies in the United States are trying out the market mechanism to nudge farmers to follow less-polluting practices.

The rationale for setting up another body headed by a bureaucrat and with annual recurring expenditure is questionable when the objective of lowering pollution levels in NCR could have been achieved by having a high-powered coordinating mechanism comprising chief ministers of the affected states as well as chairmen of their respective pollution control boards. The commission replaces a 22-year body that the Supreme Court had set up. As with the three recently-legislated laws to free up the marketing of agricultural produce, the government has once again taken the ordinance route, when the advisability of a permanent commission and its composition and tenure should have been first debated in Parliament.

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In the United States and Brazil, companies engaged with farmers see carbon credits as another source of revenue besides the income from crops. Bayer, a company that sells seeds and crop protection chemicals and biologicals, enrolled farmers in nine US states between April and October for its first carbon farming pilot. It is offering them a reward of $10 per acre if they adopt any of the three climate-smart practices: no-tillage, strip tillage and cover-crop planting. Bayer says the response has been so good that it has a waiting list.

Indigo Ag, another US company, got seven companies, including JP Morgan Chase, Barclays, Boston Consulting Group and IBM, to commit $20 per tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent sequestered in soil. Farmers can earn up to 2-3 carbon credits per acre. Since US farmers have large farms, their carbon earnings will be sizeable. Indigo has begun enrolling farmers in 21 US states for the 2021 crop season. The company is offering a guaranteed price of $10 per tonne of CO2 equivalent removed. The rate could rise depending on the demand for carbon credits. Participating farmers need to log in to the Indigo website, feed in the coordinates of their farms and provide the required information to the company. At the end of the crop cycle, Indigo will take soil samples and get the increase in the soil carbon content independently verified. These verified carbon credits will be sold. Indigo intends to remove one trillion tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere and has set up ‘The Teraton Initiative’ to achieve it.

Bayer’s current incentive scheme is straightforward. But it is working on a bio-geo-chemical model to make agriculture a zero-carbon activity. It is developing tools to measure carbon sequestered in soil. It is also creating a market platform for trading in carbon credits so that farmers are assured of a price that will persuade them to adopt and extend carbon removal practices.

Agriculture is an earth-warming activity. Tractor emissions contain CO2. Flooded paddy fields with transplanted rice emit methane, which is more earth-warming than CO2. Nitrous oxide N2O, which is a worse greenhouse gas than methane, is released when excess of urea is applied.

No-till agriculture is already being practised in Punjab and Haryana. Instead of burning paddy stubble and straw to prepare the fields for wheat planting, they retain them on the field surface and plant wheat though the straw cover with machines. The straw, which would have ended up as smoke and soot, degrades over time and enriches the soil with organic carbon. This practice covers 17 per cent of Punjab’s paddy area.

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In another 21 per cent of Punjab’s rice area, the straw is incorporated in soil with machines. So, on close to 40 per cent of Punjab’s rice area, straw is not burnt.

Incentives of the kind that Bayer and Indigo Ag offer is a democratic way of inducing a change in behaviour. It is also sustainable. But polluters should also pay as they cause harm not only to themselves but to society at large. Burnt fields, which can be detected with remote sensing, should attract fines.

Once the carbon is trapped in soil, it should stay there for a length of time. Tilling, for instance, results in organic carbon bound with soil particles getting oxidised. This happens when the macro aggregates, or clods, they are encased in get broken up. Microbes thrive in undisturbed soil. They convert nutrients in organic matter into a form that plants can absorb.

In India, Mahyco, a pioneer in seeds, and Indigo Ag have taken baby steps in the field of soil carbon sequestration. In 2017, they set up a joint venture called Grow Indigo, which is testing the concept on about a thousand acres in Punjab, Haryana and parts of Maharashtra. CIMMYT, the Mexican institute to which India’s green revolution in wheat owes its origin, is providing technical assistance.

M L Jat of CIMMYT says total carbon removed, and not just sequestered carbon, should be measured. This requires life-cycle analysis and the use of mitigation optimisation tools. Greenhouse gases are not only emitted during cultivation but also in the production and distribution of electricity, fertilisers and pesticides (including those that kill weeds). Bayer is one of the largest sellers of weed killers.

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Properly priced carbon credits would replace subsidies (on electricity and fertilisers) with free marketing pricing, which would discourage wasteful use. Farmers would be frugal. They would conserve and not burn crop residue. In low-rainfall states like Punjab, they would opt for maize instead of rice, or at least not transplant rice in flooded fields. They would also practise crop rotation and plant legumes, which reduce the use of urea and cut N2O emissions.

With the right rewards, farmers will think of agriculture as an environmental service and themselves as carbon, not just crop, farmers. But Indian government leaders are more addicted to subsidies. That is how they distribute patronage. Persuading them might be harder.

(The writer is a journalist and blogs on www.smartindianagriculture.com)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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