India lived up to everything I expected and more. What an amazing country with its friendly people, rich culture and dense population. I flew in at 2:30am and after clearing customs and dropping my bags at the airport, it was straight to the Taj Mahal. An amazing site and something on the bucket list ticked off. The masonry work is incredible and the size and spirituality it possesses was quite impressive.
The following day I traveled to Ludhiana by bus, 6.5 hours. However the bus was like traveling first class. There is the budget ‘sit on the roof’ option all the way through to the most luxurious.
The following day I met my contact Malwinder Singh Malhi who works for Syngenta and has a lot to do with Nuffield Australia. A very accommodating man, he had organized a complete schedule for the day, drove me around and met some very impressive individuals and ventures.
First stop was Punjab Agricultural University where I met with Directors and heads of faculties to discuss rice straw management. The Indian government has outlined plans to suspend burning of rice paddy and straw and so the universities have been working very hard to look to alternative measures. With an average yield of just under 4 tonne per hectare, due to the double cropping system, the rice straw continues to present as a problem.
The research had uncovered some key options that are been further investigated and of which some are running as a commercial enterprise.
- Biomass plants: burning vegetative waste, particularly rice straw, converting to electricity
- Incorporation: Management practices are been investigated to try and utilize the nutrient within the straw and advancements in mechanization are been investigated.
- Mulching: this has seen some effects with the straw left in the field and sown through with the ‘Happy seeder’ machine
- Biogas: paddy straw and enzymes combined to ferment, resulting in LPG gas
- Composting: investigation of removal of straw and operating a composting business off site, adding other fertilisers and products to then re-apply to the fields as the winter crop is growing.
- Fungicide application: applying enzyme rich solutions and fungicides to accelerate the break down process
We also discussed some of the issues facing Agriculture in India, particularly the region I was in, Punjab. Groundwater depletion is of a major concern with no restrictions in place as well as nutrient availability and access to markets as a few. Breeding and variety selection are a key element of the universities in looking for shorter season varieties and dwarf varieties to eliminate some of these issues.
From there we visited a research site ran by Dr Sarbjit Singh Sooch, which had a fully functioning Biogas prototype. 1 tonne of paddy straw would produce 80kg of Biogas similar to LPG per month for 4 months. Although a trial, there were working plants at some locations using 100 tonne at a time, running dairy operations. Cow dung is added as a cheap source of enzyme and microbes. I saw the gas burning which was clean and had zero smell. Quite impressive.
We then visited a biomass plant converting 100% rice straw to electricity, or so they claimed. This was my thought of the ‘silver bullet’ solution but unfortunately upon visiting the plant, it became apparent this was not the case. In talking with other scientist and people in the industry in India, these types of plants are putting on a brave face. There is terrific potential however, but it is a matter of combining some new technology to fully utilize this system. One of the main issues faced by the plant was logistics in acquiring straw. A system I viewed in England would fit well into an Australian system as opposed to the Indian system where they are 1 acre blocks and use small square bales and the roads are very difficult to move around on. Still advancements are necessary to optimize this type of operation.
I was then lucky enough to accompany Malwinder to a grower group meeting involving around 15 local farmers. As Malwinder works for Syngenta, he is discussing chemical applications to the local farmers but has also been heavily involved in experimental stations looking at best management practice, achieving high yielding results while also reducing inputs. These techniques are been rapidly adopted by the farmers, it is impressive to see.
The following day I traveled to Amritsar in the north of Punjab to visit Dr B.S. Chadha from Guru Nanak University. Dr Chadha works in the department of Microbiology and for the last few years have been looking into extraction to value add with rice straw. Essentially, high value extraction occurs early in a process, leaving the rest to be utilized in biogas. This advancement looked extremely promising to me and although this was not occurring on a commercial scale as yet, the research suggests it may be possible and it provides solutions to the problems faced by other methods.
From there I quickly visited the Golden Temple, such a beautiful, spiritual place.
I then headed back towards Ludhiana but stopped on the way to drop in on the ‘Potato Prince’ of India, Mr. Jang Sangha. Jang also grows rice as a summer crop and was extremely good to me and is a very knowledgeable person. Having been educated both in India and the USA, his understanding and philosophy of the broader issues facing not only agriculture in India but around the world were brilliant to discuss. I also quickly toured his workshop and office and was very impressed with the scale and detail his operation runs at.
From there, headed back to Ludhiana where I had dinner with Malwinder and Mr. Pangli who presented me with an honorary Borlaug Farmers Association membership, named after the famous plant breeder and Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, famous as the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’. I was quite honored.
India had been truly amazing and one of the great highlights of this journey so far.