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Crop Residue Burning in India and Potential Solutions

Written by: Gargi Sarma, Industry Analyst @Global Launch Base


In India, crop residue burning is a significant problem that is bad for the environment and people's health. With year-round crop production, India is the second-largest agro-based economy and produces a lot of agricultural waste, including crop leftovers. Approximately 92 looks like very tiny amount of metric tonnes of agricultural waste being burned each year in India in the lack of proper sustainable management techniques, leading to excessive particulate matter emissions and air pollution. India also accounts for the most polluted cities in the world. Pollution levels frequently exceed WHO regulations by multiple times, according to pollution monitors. And every autumn, for approximately a month, as thousands of farmers in North India burn off the paddy waste from their fields, thick smoke covers Punjab and drifts hundreds of kilometres to New Delhi, impacting the health of millions of people. Additionally, this unsustainable technique degrades soil quality and lowers agricultural production.


Figure 1

The growth in agricultural residue burning from 1950–51 to 2017–18 is seen in Figure 1. Between 1950–1951 and 2017–2018, crop residue burning increased from 18 million tonnes to 116 million tonnes in terms of total biomass burned. Between 1950–1951 and 2010–2011, agricultural residue burning grew at an average decadal growth rate of 32%.


Figure 2

We know that these areas as mentioned in Figure 2 have the most important crops grown and thus the northern, central, and western regions significantly contribute to crop burning. The most agricultural residue is burned in states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan.

According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy in India, the agricultural residue is produced annually at a pace of about 500 million tonnes. The majority of this is burned in the fields, while some of it is utilised for other things, such as feeding animals. The issue is severe in Punjab, where 15.4 million tonnes of rice straw are burned to swiftly and inexpensively prepare fields for planting the following crop. Farmers have been compelled to adopt techniques that frequently lead to the ecological imbalance in the agroecosystem due to the ongoing pressure to boost agricultural production.

Various state and federal administrations as well as regulatory agencies have employed a variety of strategies to try and decrease agricultural residue burning. The National Green Tribunal (NGTSub)'s Mission on Agricultural Mechanization (SMAM), which is carried out according to a 60:40 sharing arrangement between the Centre and the State, has received funding from the authorised budget.

According to Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and the Air and Pollution Control Act of 1981, burning agricultural residue is illegal. Crop residue burning was prohibited in the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Punjab on December 10, 2015, where the practice is common.

Thus this article takes us through the primary causes, impacts of burning crop residue, and the advanced innovations and technologies to address the crucial problem of crop residue burning.

Reasons behind the burning of crop residues:

The general categories of agricultural residues are produced by the major cereal crops and sugar cane. These crop leftovers, in particular field residue, are a natural resource that has historically improved soil fertility and stability by composting or direct ploughing into the soil. Effective field residue management can also improve irrigation effectiveness and erosion prevention. However, the large scale and quick pace of agricultural production have put economic and practical restrictions on such conventional sustainable approaches. Burning excess agricultural residue is a popular practice, particularly in the Northern States of India.

The factors that contribute to crop residue burning include an increase in crop residues due to higher crop yields, labour shortages, the short time between harvesting the monsoon (Kharif) crop and sowing the winter (Rabi) crop, a lack of suitable crop residue management technology, residues from the nutritionally deficient rice crop, resource constraints, social pressure, and a lack of awareness of the public health issues associated with crop residue burning.

The labour shortage, high harvesting season salaries, ease of harvesting and thrashing, and weather uncertainty are the main causes of the fast growth in combine harvesters usage. About 80% of the leftovers from combined harvesting are left in the field as loose straws, where they are eventually burned on farms. The deliberate burning of crop leftovers is also done for a few additional reasons. These include managing pests and pastures, improving soil fertility, and clearing fields. In northwest India, for instance, the interval between harvesting rice and growing wheat is just about 15-20 days. Farmers prefer to burn rice straw on-site during this brief period rather than harvest it for use as feed or in any other way. The latter choices also come with significant transportation expenses.

However, marginal and small farmers are unable to purchase the implements to plough back the stubbles to mix back into the soil, particularly for the management of crop residues, as there is a great burden on those farmers to spend that much money on these implements. Large farmers can afford the amount by purchasing expensive equipment for the fields as well as for other purposes.

Farm mechanisation has significantly altered every aspect of the system, including how farmers plant, water their fields and even harvest their crops. Large quantities of residue remained in the field after the invention of the combine harvester, making the planting of successive crops somewhat more challenging. When using a sickle, farmers leave very little residue behind that won't interfere with sowing the following crop, but when using a combine harvester, roughly 25 to 30 cm of stubble is left above the ground.

Impact of burning crop residues:

Crop residue burning releases smoke and soot particles that harm human and animal health. Additionally, it causes the loss of plant nutrients like N, P, K, and S as well as the production of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, which contribute to global warming. Burning crop waste is a waste of essential resources that could be used to generate energy, feed, and carbon for rural homes and small businesses. Figure 3 shows burning, a tonne of rice straw produces roughly 3 kg of particulate matter, 60 kg of CO, 1460 kg of CO2, 199 kg of ash, and 2 kg of SO2 (Jenkins and Bhatnagar. 1991).


Figure 3

Numerous contaminants that are present in high concentrations in biomass smoke are known or suspected carcinogens and might pose a serious threat by contributing to several lung and airborne ailments. Additionally, it is predicted that in situ burning of agricultural wastes in India yearly emits 627-kilo tonnes (Kt) of PM10 and 4677 Kt of CO into the atmosphere (TERI 2019). Crop residue burning produces heat that raises soil temperature and kills active populations of helpful bacteria; however, this effect is only temporary since the microbes quickly recover. However, frequent field burning permanently reduces the microbial population.

According to 2016 research by Vitull K. Gupta, professor of medicine at Bathinda, 84.5% of individuals experience health issues as a result of a rise in smog. It was shown that 768.8% of respondents experienced discomfort in their eyes, 44.8% in their noses, and 45.5% in their throats.

Moreover, crop residue burning also limits how farms can prepare the land and plant wheat as a subsequent crop. In addition, residual straw and stubble land do not disintegrate due to the limited window of 10-15 days between paddy harvest and wheat planting season, and farmers view its clearance as an uneconomical effort. Farmers' shortsighted actions include burning the rice stubble on the ground so that it may be used for practical farming activities.

Initiatives by the Government towards reducing the burning of crop residues:

Through a variety of efforts, the Indian government is making several attempts to reduce the quantity of agricultural waste burning. Such initiatives include promoting and encouraging the use of agricultural residue also as a raw material in the energy sector.


  1. Promotion of biogas plants


The Indian government has made a proactive move to reduce crop burning and stop pollution by building biogas facilities. The "waste to energy mission" was the umbrella term used by the government to undertake these schemes. 5000 m3 of biogas are produced daily by large-scale industrial biogas facilities. A total of 400 or more off-grid biogas power plants with a 5.5 MW capacity have been installed. In India, 56 biogas-based power plants are now in operation, with Maharashtra, Kerala, and Karnataka hosting the bulk of them. Paddy straw and other agricultural residues besides manure and vegetable waste may now be used for biogas generation in an integrated manner thanks to recent technological advancements.

2. Governmental Programs and Policies

The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) was instructed by the Indian government to combine crop residue pellets (almost 10%) with coal to generate electricity. With a financial return of about Rs. 5500 per tonne of crop residue, this benefited the farmers. These effective strategies are still being developed, and farmers may take advantage of them. Farmers from several states received training for producing bio-compost and converting agro-waste under various government programmes. These extensive efforts helped farmers acquire financial advantages.

A National Policy for Management of Crop Residue (NPMCR) was recently created by the Indian Ministry of Agriculture with the following primary goals:


  • To reduce the loss of important soil nutrients and to increase the variety of uses for crop residue in industrial applications, promote technology for the best exploitation and in-situ management of crop residue.

  • Create and encourage the use of suitable crop machinery in agricultural techniques, such as modifying grain recovery equipment (harvesters with twin cutters to cut the straw). Subsidies, rebates, and incentives should be made available for the purchase of automated sowing equipment including happy seeders, turbo seeders, shredders, and baling machines.

  • Observe agricultural residue management using satellite-based remote sensing technology in collaboration with the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

  • Provide financial assistance for creative ideas and project proposals to achieve the aforementioned using a multidisciplinary approach and money mobilisation in multiple ministries.


Sustainable solutions/ startups involved in reducing the burning of crop residues:

Crop residue is wasted when it is burned, depriving farmers of a resource and potential revenue stream. Crop waste may be used for a variety of useful purposes, such as the creation of green energy, which would considerably help India reach its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) objectives and slow down global warming. Crop residue may also be used to produce organic soil fertiliser, power, fuel for cooking, and feed for livestock. Numerous uses are required to use the agricultural residue supply due to the enormous yearly amount.

Although the central and state governments in India have promoted alternatives, such as the adoption of new tools and technology, the following are some of the technologies and associated startups that can help farmers to manage crop residue sustainably:


  1. Straw decomposition: If managed correctly, crop stubbles might offer farmers significant economic rewards and safeguard the environment from serious contamination.


Bio-lutions: Using a mechanical process, Hamburg-based CleanTech business BIO-LUTIONS creates distinctive, self-binding, long-lasting fibcro® natural fibres. This proprietary process does not require chemical cellulose isolation or binding agents.

Circular Systems: A Dutch start-up called Circular Systems creates waste-to-fibre goods for the circular economy. Agraloop, its solution, converts agricultural waste into BioFibre for use in yarn and textile manufacturing. The platform also produces organic soil amendments and the bioenergy needed to power the mill. The startup's platform, Texloop, makes it possible to recycle post-industrial and consumer textile waste. The apparel sector uses less water and emits fewer pollutants thanks to these regenerative technologies.

Biomyc: A firm in Bulgaria called Biomyc transforms agricultural waste into inexpensive, ecological packaging. To create packaging solutions that offer additional thermal and impact protection, the business uses a mushroom substance that mixes agricultural byproducts and mushroom roots. Additionally, it provides paper pulp packaging created from wood sawdust and recycled paper.

Lixea: A lignocellulosic biomass fractionation method is being developed by Lixea, an Estonian firm. The BioFlex technique developed by the firm transforms wood materials into a more environmentally friendly substitute for petrochemicals using inexpensive ionic liquids. Waste wood, agricultural wastes, and biomass that has been farmed responsibly are all used in the process. It is compatible with all lignocellulosic biomass types, including wood that has been exposed to heavy metals as well as softwoods and hardwoods.

ZestBio: ZestBio, a US-based firm, offers methods for recycling agricultural waste. The company's cell-based bioconversion technology transforms industrial waste from the processing of fruits and vegetables into useful chemicals. From waste materials including citrus peels, potato peels, grape pomace, and sugar beet pulp, it produces sustainable cleaning ingredients, bio-based polymers, and specialised chemicals.

2. Employ as fodder: It has long been customary in India to feed animals with paddy straw. Therefore, using rice stubble as animal feed may be a practical, sustainable method that, if applied well, may help reduce outdoor stubble burning.

Entio: Entio is a startup which optimises the conversion of organic waste into fertiliser and proteins from eatable insects. They tell their narrative of encouraging rural communities to sustainably recycle agricultural waste to further the transformation of our food systems.

SoldierFly Technologies: Soldier Fly Technologies transforms local food and agricultural waste streams into insect nutrients for organic fertiliser, pet food, and animal feed. The bioconversion technology developed by the start-up optimises the black soldier fly's natural life cycle to produce all-natural, premium goods for plant and animal nutrition. In comparison to conventional protein sources, the zero-waste method consumes less water and land and decreases greenhouse gas emissions.

PlasticFri: Swedish start-up PlasticFri creates sustainable biocomposites. Utilizing non-edible plants and agricultural waste, the startup's unique method harvests fibrous components to make an environmentally beneficial alternative to plastic. Plasticfri's material is entirely biodegradable and free of any toxic components. Thus, the firm offers farmers an effective and ecological method of disposing of plant waste.

Sustinent: Australian start-up Sustinent creates useful goods out of recycled green garbage. Utilizing unique technology, the business transforms lignocellulosic waste, such as crop residue and sugarcane waste, into value-added bio commodities, such as nutrient-dense stock feed. The approach minimises greenhouse gas emissions, which results in a cooler temperature, cleaner air, and a regenerated ecosystem. This is done by eliminating plant-based waste from the environment. The business also paves the path for alliances that provide farmers with more money.

EcoOpus: EcoOpus Agri Ventures is a distinctive social venture that offers farmers full services to manage their crop biomass and product. To increase the productivity and profitability of agriculture supply chains, they advocate for the use of appropriate small-farm technology.

3. Bio-fuel production: Since tonnes of biomass are burned each year, causing pollution and resource waste, there is a large market for biofuels.

Charm Industrial: The goal of Charm Industrial is to get the environment back to 280 ppm CO2. They create, construct, and run a fleet of mobile rapid pyrolyzers that utilise biomass leftovers from agriculture and forestry to create bio-oil for use in carbon removal and the production of direct-reduced iron steel.

Vuma Biofuels: Vuma Biofuels, a firm in Kenya, creates a biofuel substitute for conventional firewood. The firm makes sustainable bagasse briquettes out of sugarcane husks that are considered agricultural waste. Additionally, these briquettes have a lower ash percentage than ordinary firewood and create twice as much heat while burning for a longer period of time. This provides industrial plant owners with an affordable method to use bioenergy to minimise carbon emissions from their plants and an incentive for farms to control crop waste.

Biofuel Evolution: By digesting biomass from maize, sugarcane, or cellulose, bioethanol offers a fueling option that lessens the world's reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels. Bioethanol also increases regional production and lowers combustion emissions. BeBlock is an in-situ device developed by British startup Biofuel Evolution that uses food waste from commercial, agricultural, and residential sources to create low-carbon bioethanol. Blockchain technology will be used to construct peer-to-peer (p2p) bioethanol networks.

Manta Biofuels: By propagating and maintaining algal microorganisms, algae biofuel simultaneously addresses the problems of overusing croplands and releasing significant volumes of carbon dioxide. Algae biofuel is very productive because of its capacity to absorb significant amounts of carbon, which helps move the goalposts toward carbon neutrality. Manta Biofuel, a US-based firm, creates carbon-neutral biofuel from crude oil. They cultivate algae in open ponds, gather concentrated biomass using proprietary magnetic harvesting technology, and turn it into biofuel in hydrothermal liquefaction reactors.

Biofuels Junction: The long-term objectives of Biofuels Junction are to increase farmer income, create a cleaner environment by displacing fossil fuels, and support the rural economy. With the support of a capable workforce and strong leadership, Biofuels Junction is now producing, aggregating, and promoting the sales of 4000 tonnes of biomass fuel per month. Biofuels Junction participates responsibly in the solid biofuels value chain with solutions that include farm residue collection, supplier development, large-scale aggregation, and supply chain advising.

Conclusion:

Given that rice and wheat, which typically produce the majority of crop residue, are the two main staples in India, the large-scale cultivation of these crops to feed the nation's constantly growing population has undoubtedly resulted in the generation of large quantities of crop residue, which the nation is unable to handle. Sustainable approaches, however, hold a greater chance of success since they employ techniques for reintroducing the nutrients in crop residue to the same croplands. Crop waste may be used by using relatively underutilised bio-based products like biogas, charcoal, and in-situ management with mechanical intensification. It is advisable to use biogas plants to capture methane gas on a large scale from the trash.

Without a doubt, the environment and human health have suffered owing to the improper handling of plentiful agricultural residue, not just in India but across the world. Agricultural field burning has several negative effects on the environment, including risk to soil fertility and the release of hazardous gases such as CO2, CO, SO2, PM2.5, and PM10. As a result, many other alternatives that new startups are coming up to reduce crop residue burning should also be taken into consideration, such as in situ integration, mulching, composting, devices, and the usage of bioenergy.

Moreover, the crop residual from the segregation of grains is a wider sector that is yet untapped and has been less focused on. Today, every industry in the world has been revolutionized by technological improvements, and agriculture is no different. Thus, the advancement of new technologies on the growth of farms and yield management has a wide scope to connect the dots to reduce the burning of crop residues and also help farmers to improve their economy. To enable economic success for farmers, India can take advantage of such advancements in agriculture.

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