* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Small farmers can afford to rent laser levellers, enabling more efficient use of water and boosting food security
Life in rural India evokes an image of a farmer levelling the land with an ox-drawn scraper. It’s one of the most basic preparations before sowing, as uneven land does not bode well for water absorption and farm productivity.
But for many farmers, animal power is being replaced by machines. A laser land leveller - a machine equipped with a laser-operated drag bucket - is much more effective and quicker at ensuring a flat, even surface.
A flat surface means irrigation water reaches every part of the field with minimal waste from run-off or water-logging.
Mechanisation is good news for farmers, as climate change and variability pose unprecedented challenges to agriculture.
The need of the hour is climate-smart agriculture practices and technologies that save on scarce resources like water and energy but increase yields and incomes.
A portfolio of climate-smart practices can equip farmers to adapt to changing weather patterns amid depleting natural resources.
For instance, groundwater in north-western India has been declining at alarming rates due to the overuse of electric pumps, largely thanks to subsidised electricity, and inadequate recharge from erratic rainfall.
Recent studies predict that demand for irrigation water will increase at least 10 percent with a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature in Asia’s arid and semi-arid regions.
Irrigation is the biggest user of groundwater in north-western India, and unless steps are taken to reverse this trend, farmers face a water-scarce future.
A study by researchers from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) looks into the impact of laser land levelling in rice-wheat systems in north India.
The study aims to assess if and how laser land levelling helps farm communities by improving productivity, saving on water and energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and boosting incomes.
Using household surveys and comparing data from traditional levelling, the study shows the benefits of laser land levelling and the policy implications of promoting new climate-smart farm technologies.
Irrigation time: Laser levelling in rice fields reduced irrigation time by 47-69 hours per hectare per season and improved yield by approximately 7 percent compared with traditionally levelled fields. For wheat, irrigation time was reduced by 10-12 hours per hectare every season and yield increased by 7-9 percent in laser levelled fields.
Food security: The study calculates that if 50 percent of the area under rice-wheat systems in Haryana and Punjab states were laser levelled, it would result in additional annual production of 699 million kg of rice and 987 million kg of wheat, amounting to $385 million extra per year. Not only does this translate to higher incomes for farmers, it also increases food security in the region given that the Indo-Gangetic Plains are a bread basket and rice bowl for South Asia.
Energy: Less time spent on irrigation means less energy used for irrigation. The study shows that laser land levelling saves electricity amounting to about 755 kWh per hectare for rice-wheat systems.
Costs: The study challenges the perception that only large-scale or rich farmers can afford and benefit from laser-levellers. It is common for many small-holder farmers to rent the equipment or form a cooperative to share the costs of around $10 for a day’s work.
Water: Laser land levelling is a water-saving technology as it uses scarce groundwater optimally by ensuring even coverage. A laser-levelled farm minimises run-off and water-logging, ensuring that farmers use just as much water they need in the optimal way.
Less greenhouse gas emissions: A previous study (Gill 2014) from Haryana reported that use of laser land levellers over traditional land levellers reduces emission of greenhouse gases through decreased water pumping and cultivation time and better use of fertilisers.
Income: The higher yields and money saved on water and energy mean farmers benefited by an additional $143.5 per hectare a year from growing rice and wheat.
While the uptake of laser-land levelling does not discriminate against poorer farmers, the study highlights how women farmers are less likely to adopt new technology due to socio-cultural barriers.
Gender inequalities in states like Haryana and Punjab mean women have less access to information and resources, and often have to depend on men to negotiate prices with male service providers.
Laser land levelling is just one among numerous farming activities that contribute to sustainable agriculture. When combined with other resource-saving practices and technologies like solar irrigation, agroforestry and proper residue management, the gains can be multiplied for each farmer and the community as a whole.
As a standalone intervention, the benefits highlighted by the research call for investigating business models that could expand this technology in different landscapes and socio-economic settings.
Dharini Parthasarathy works on communications for CCAFS South Asia.
The study was carried out by researchers from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).