Tom Thompson: Reflections on my Trip to India

By Dr. Thomas Thompson, Associate Dean and Director of Global Programs, Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

May 14, 2020

During a recent pre-pandemic trip to India, I saw agricultural productivity successes and challenges in action.

Sent on behalf of the Virginia Tech Center for International Research, Education, and Development (CIRED), I arrived with a packed itinerary full of opportunities to engage directly with and learn from agricultural organizations and producers. I learned about their success and about challenges facing the region, including the use of dung for fuel, which poses health and environmental risks.

Projects and progress

First, I met with the Sehgal Foundation, which collaborates with rural communities in India to create sustainable programs for managing water resources, increasing agricultural productivity, and strengthening rural governance.

In collaboration with GAP Report partner The Mosaic Company, the Sehgal Foundation is working with a group of farmers in Rajasthan state to use balanced fertilization, which is using the right ratio of nutrients for optimum crop growth. This has decreased the input — the amount of fertilizer used — while increasing wheat yields by 10-20%.

Tactics like this help increase total factor productivity, which is a ratio that measures changes in how efficiently agricultural inputs are transformed into outputs. Increasing total factor productivity is necessary to meet the demands of a growing global population, and projects like those led by the Sehgal Foundation are vital.

I also visited Jain Irrigation in Maharashtra state, and saw their technology in action in farmer’s fields and at a very sophisticated research installation at Haryana Agricultural University. India likely has the world’s most pressing water supply and quality challenges, and widespread adoption of drip irrigation — with water use efficiency of up to 90 percent — could be a game-changer.

A photo of toilet facilities from the outside, wrapped in a Senegal Foundation wallpaper.
Improved toilet facilities at a primary school. Credit: Thomas Thompson

The Sehgal Foundation also showed me improvements they led with The Mosaic Company at a local primary school. Clean, colorful classrooms are more conducive to learning, and modern toilet facilities have helped increase school attendance, especially for girls. As a father of girls, I especially appreciated this. Confidence in the educational system will improve parents’ outlook for the future.

Initiatives to increase agricultural productivity can produce the best results in situations where people are optimistic about their lives and futures, and thus willing to invest in improved practices and technologies.

Hazards of a common practice

During my trip, I also learned more about a leading source of fuel for home cooking and heating in India: dung “cakes,” made from cow or buffalo dung. According to my observations, making these cakes is mostly, if not exclusively, done by women (and some children also).

Dung is rehydrated by adding water, and small amounts of straw are added. These are then formed into flat disc-shaped cakes, dried, and stacked. The stacks are often formed into the shape of a small house, commonly with a gabled roof. The house is then built with the same wet dung mixture and decorated with a variety of designs.

A photo of a woman working to make dung "cakes" while a child watches from a stack nearby.
Woman making and stacking dung cakes, while a child nearby watches from the shade of a stack. Credit: Thomas Thompson

During the ensuing months, the entire house is used for cooking and heating. At first glance, this could be thought of as a sustainable technique, because it makes effective use of a common natural resource. However, using dung in this way is in fact damaging to the environment and human health.

According to a recent article in Nature Communications, domestic burning of dung and other biomass is the source of as much as 90 percent of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter) air pollution in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which contains seven of the world’s ten worst cities in terms of air pollution.

These particles easily enter into lungs and can lead to acute and chronic respiratory problems, and include carcinogens. Forming the cakes also exposes women and children to parasites and diseases that can pass from animals to humans. 

In addition to the health and air pollution side-effects of burning dung, this also represents a tremendous loss of nutrients and vital organic matter that could benefit soils and crops.

A photo of a house that was constructed using dung "cakes."
House made of dung and containing dung cakes. Credit: Thomas Thompson

Farmers that I met were concerned about the loss of soil fertility during recent decades. Adding dung to soil, rather than burning it, is a sustainable and economical solution to this problem.

India’s bovines produce at least 1 billion tons of dung each year, and as much as three-quarters of this is burned. Because manure contains 2-3% nitrogen, and burning releases nitrogen as gases, several billion kg of plant-essential nitrogen is being released to the atmosphere each year in India alone.

In addition, burning releases carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. Applying dung to soil will improve soil fertility, increase soil carbon sequestration, reduce global warming potential, increase crop productivity, and improve health and air quality for all Indians.

Looking ahead

Steps have been taken in India to reduce biomass burning. In 2015, burning dung was prohibited near the Taj Mahal because of concerns that air pollution was discoloring the iconic structure. Recently, Bihar state banned burning dung in the municipal corporation area of Patna.

But, it is estimated that 78 percent of India’s residents still burn biomass, including dung, for cooking and heating. The solution is improved access to affordable technology, including LPG (propane), electricity, and small-scale biogas generation facilities.

As in agriculture, increased access to technology can improve lives and livelihoods, increase productivity, result in improved health outcomes, and reduce drudgery for women.

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