Laser land levelling goes far beyond increasing productivity; it saves water, increases food security and even reduces environmental footprint
Life in rural India evokes the image of a farmer levelling land with an oxen-drawn scraper. It is one of the most basic and integral land preparations before sowing. Undulated land does not bode well for water absorption and farm productivity.
However, today, animal power is being replaced by machines. A laser land leveller—a machine equipped with a laser-guided drag bucket—is far more effective and quicker in ensuring a flat, even surface, like a tabletop. A flat surface means irrigation water reaches every part of the field.
While mechanisation is good news for farmers, climate change and climate variability pose unprecedented challenges. We need climate-smart agriculture practices and technologies that not only save on scarce resources such as water and energy but also increase yields, incomes and even reduce environmental footprint. A portfolio of climate-smart practices can equip farmers to adapt to changing weather patterns amidst depleting natural resources.
For instance, groundwater in north-western India has been declining at alarming rates because of overuse of electric pumps, largely by subsidised electricity, and inadequate recharge from erratic rainfall.
Recent studies predict that there would be at least a 10% increase in irrigation water demand with a one-degree rise in temperature in arid and semi-arid regions of Asia. Irrigation is the biggest user of groundwater in north-western India and unless steps are taken to reverse this trend, farmers are looking at a water-scarce future.
A recent study 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) 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 farm productivity, saving on water and energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing 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 technologies among farmers.
Irrigation time: Laser levelling in rice fields has reduced irrigation time by 47-69 hours per hectare per season and has improved yield by approximately 7% as compared with traditionally-levelled fields. In wheat, irrigation time was reduced by 10-12 hours per hectare every season and yield increased by 7-9% in laser levelled fields.
Food security: Based on analysis from the data, the study computes that if 50% of the area under rice-wheat systems in Haryana and Punjab is laser levelled, it would result in an additional production of 699 million kg of rice and 987 million kg of wheat, which amounts to $385 million a year extra. Not only does this translate into higher incomes for farmers but it also increases food security of the region.
Energy: Less time spent on irrigation means less energy spent on irrigation. The study shows that laser land levelling saves electricity amounting to about 755 kWh per hectare per year for rice-wheat systems.
Costs: Another perception that the study challenges is that only large landholders or rich farmers can afford and benefit from laser levellers. But laser land levelling is scale-neutral and not biased towards large holdings. It is common for many small farmers to rent the equipment or form a cooperative to share the costs. The rental cost is about $10 for an hour. It takes about 4-5 hours to laser level a hectare of land and farmers need to do it once in three years.
Water: Laser land levelling is a water-saving technology as it uses scarce groundwater optimally by ensuring even coverage. Compared to traditionally levelled land, a laser levelled farm minimises run-off and water-logging.
Less greenhouse gas emissions: A related study reported that use of laser land leveller over traditional land levellers reduces emission of greenhouse gases through decreased water pumping time, decreased cultivation time and better use of fertilisers.
Income: Increased yields and the money saved on water and energy means farmers benefited by an additional $143.5 per hectare a year from growing rice and wheat.
Laser land levelling is just one among numerous farming activities that contribute to sustainable agriculture. When used in combination with other resource-saving practices and technologies like solar energy based irrigation, precision nutrient application, direct-seeded rice, zero tillage and proper residue management, the gains can be multiplied.
As a single farm intervention, however, the evidence from the study shows the benefits call for investigating business models that can increase uptake of this technology and help scaling other technologies in different landscapes and socio-economic settings.
The government needs to assess how it can support farming communities take up new technologies that deliver multiple benefits. The aim should be to ensure that technology uptake is inclusive and does not discriminate against marginalised farmers.
Jeetendra Aryal is a climate economist and ML Jat is a senior cropping agronomist, CIMMYT-CCAFS