Irrigation: Big Gains in Small Farms

By Dr. Raghvendra Sandhikar 7 November, 2013

Syngenta's Dr. Sandhikar uses India to showcase the adoption of water efficient tech in small farms

95% of farms in China are less than two hectares compared to 86% in India; training of smallholder is key
Groundwater usage has intensified in India: now two-thirds of irrigated area compared to one third in the 60's
Drip irrigation saves 40% of water & improves to 60% with Plastic Mulch; Panipipes can lower costs by 21-27%

The debate on how to feed the ever increasing population on this planet continues unabated. According to estimates, food grain production will have to increase by almost 70%  to meet the growing requirements of nine billion people by 2050. The FAO’s report “World Agriculture towards 2030/2050” reveals that pressure on resources such as land and water is likely to increase dramatically in future decades. This is aggravated by the fragmentation of farmland in South Asia putting enormous pressure on the ecosystem.
Agriculture across Asia is characterized by smallholders cultivating small plots of land. With 95% of farms in China typically being smaller than 2 hectares (ha), China’s agricultural sector shares many similarities with India (86%). Because of this mass mechanization cannot be relied upon for increasing productivity, as was the case in the Europe and the USA. The key to enhancing farm productivity lies in improving the efficiency of the inputs and using better, more effective technologies. 
Syngenta’s head of Solutions Development in India, Dr. Raghvendra Sandhikar discusses Syngenta’s approach to sustainable agriculture, and using India as an example, gives us three key takeaways about Indian agriculture and three ways in which Syngenta has helped small holders adopt water efficient technologies. There are several lessons that China can learn from these new technologies.

Syngenta’s approach to sustainable agriculture

Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy providing employment to almost 60% of the population in South Asia and will continue to be so for at least the next few decades. With India alone estimated to add close to half a billion people by 2050, the farmers will have to grow crops more efficiently, conserve existing land, improve biodiversity and most importantly integrate the 86% of smallholders currently holding less than two hectares into the mainstream of the developmental process. Syngenta’s pipeline, of sustainable technologies that protect the long-term economic and environmental viability of farming is therefore critical to sustainable agriculture.
From the earliest phases of our research processes we include measures for efficacy, economic benefit, and human and environmental safety. For every crop protection product that reaches the farmer’s field, almost 100,000 are tested but discarded because they do not meet efficacy or safety standards. Developing new metrics that assess the full impact of products and technologies, so that we can ensure they deliver benefit without harm, has entailed that we look at farming practices holistically, rather than focusing narrowly on the properties of a single product, to assess their overall resource efficiency. Agricultural practices in India and some solutions towards sustainable agriculture put in place by Syngenta are discussed below:

Three key takeaways on agriculture in India:

1. Explosion in small farms numbers

The “post green revolution” phase in Indian agriculture is revealing. The fragmentation of farm holdings gathered momentum dramatically, with small land holdings growing from 62% in 1960 to a whopping 86% by 2003, a year on year Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 0.8% (Table 1).

Changes in the Operational Farm Holding in India
Explosion of Small Farm NumbersThe 86% of growers in India with land holdings of less than two ha cultivate about 44% of the country’s farmland and their contribution to total farm output exceeds 50%. Their share towards household food security and poverty alleviation is ever increasing and small farmers contribute in a big way to the country’s total production of vegetables (approx. 70%), fruits (55%) and spices (49%).

Hence it is important that these farmers are trained adequately on modern technologies not only for improving their productivity but also to economize on the resource use. Syngenta has been working proactively to boost the productivity of smallholder farmers in South Asia.

2. Misuse of groundwater reduces water table

The net sown area across the whole of India grew marginally at 0.08% (Table 2). However, an analysis of net irrigated area (Table 3) shows a surprising trend. There is only a marginal increase (CAGR of 0.5%) in surface irrigation but there is a rapid growth in ground water irrigation (CAGR of 3.6%).

Groundwater conservation needed as levels drop by 0.33 m pa

The increase in surface irrigation happened in the early years of green revolution, the real beneficiaries being the large farms where canal and river water was available. However, increased use of groundwater came about primarily because of the availability of drilling technologies and pumps (diesel and electric). This boosted the total production and led to the country becoming self-sufficient in food grains however, at the same time having an adverse impact on the groundwater table (Source: Bhalla and Singh, Planning commission report 2010).

 3.  Groundwater conservation needed as levels drop by 0.33 m p.a.

The rampant overuse of groundwater can be gauged by the fact that its per capita availability in 1951 was 3000 m3 per annum, by 2010 it had decreased to 1800 m3. A survey by NASA during 2002-2008 revealed that the groundwater table has decreased in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan by 0.33 m per annum (Source: Current Science, May 2013).

Looking at the dependency of agriculture on groundwater and its many uses, this overuse is a key resource for India’s food security and sustainability in the next 3-4 decades and efforts need to be initiated to conserve it for a longer term.

Three cost effective water efficiency solutions put into practice by Syngenta:

1. PaniPipe Initiative increases rice yields & saves irrigation costs

Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) is a known water-saving technique promoted by International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that lowland (paddy) rice farmers can adopt to reduce their water use in irrigated fields and also use this tool to improve productivity of Rice. In AWD water management system rice fields are not kept continuously submerged but are allowed to dry intermittently during the rice growing stage thereby promoting air circulation in the root zone. This improves root health and supports in productivity improvements.


Though the technology is widely known to give yield improvements, its implementation is not without difficulties. The primary hurdle in implementing this technique is to convince farmers about the drying aspect and its link to productivity. One other challenge is that in certain areas water cannot be controlled. In order to simplify the use of this technology, a simple ‘PaniPipe’ methodology was developed by IRRI and promoted in Bangladesh by Syngenta.

The PaniPipe, inserted into the ground vertically, allows farmers to monitor the water level below ground, thereby decreasing the need to flood the rice. During the initial phase a simple pipe (see image) was developed which guided farmers on the timing of irrigation. Later the growers innovated and started using perforated plastic bottles for use in their fields. This practice is widely used in the Boro rice cultivation season of Bangladesh (Boro rice is rice cultivated between December and April).

Benefits of PaniPipe:

    • Saves irrigation cost by 21-27%
    • Increases yield by 2-9%
    • This increased yield raises the incremental benefit per acre from US$22.5 to US$37.5

2. Promoting drip irrigation to maximise returns in off season vegetables

Though seasonal vegetable cultivation is significant in India, the profits earned are relatively small as often increased supply leads to a fall in prices thus reducing gains for the grower. However, if vegetables are grown in the off-season, returns can be maximized. With the use of drip irrigation technology, Syngenta has helped farmers grow tomato and capsicum in summers with enhanced productivity. This technique has dramatically reduced water requirements by almost 40%, thereby enabling farmers to irrigate their fields throughout the year without fear of losing their crop. It has helped minimize costs related to irrigation, fertilizers, weeding and reduced the amount of labor required and has led to a decrease in pest and disease problems.

Conventional vs Modern Irrigation Techniques

Consistent efforts from Syngenta to maximize returns on off-season cultivation have led to more than 70% of farmers across India adopting Syngenta’s technology for summer tomato and capsicum cultivation. Syngenta has also developed such technologies for watermelon, cucumbers and other commercially important crops as well.

Drip Irrigation of Off Season Vegetables

3. Plastic mulch with drip irrigation reduces water use by 60%

Another technique that has been successful is the use of Plastic Mulch – an outer covering for soil that helps in preventing water losses through evaporation, reduces weed infestation and acts as a barrier to soil pathogens, whilst maintaining soil temperature. Consequently, use of mulch along with Drip Irrigation Systems in various vegetable crops is increasing, because of a reduction in water use by about 60% and the reduction in fertilizer cost due to site-specific application. This technology has led to the tripling of overall yield in crops like tomato, capsicums and cotton, among others.

Syngenta Plastic Mulch & Drip Irrigation

Growing more from less

Technologies like PaniPipe in rice, Drip Irrigation and Drip+Mulch in vegetables and commercial crops are living up to Syngenta’s philosophy of supporting farmers “Grow More from Less”. By using drip and drip+mulch technologies, Syngenta is currently innovating, by integrating techniques like fertigation, chemigation along with Agronomy to enhance productivity. These technologies are leading to the efficient utilization of inputs like water, labor, fertilizers and crop protection products fueling economic growth and building confidence in rural geographies, and thereby contributing to food security and sustainability. Most importantly, the technologies are also helping to improve the quality of life of farming communities by increasing their return on investment.
Moreover, since poor farming practices are leaving soil vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain, we also help farmers increase soil fertility and improve the productivity on their land in sustainable ways through advice on crop rotations, restoration of degraded land, planting vegetation around fields to prevent erosion and techniques to avoid unnecessary tilling. As such, we have not only invested significantly to develop innovative water-efficient technologies, drought-tolerant seeds, crop protection products, and optimized irrigation systems, but also introduced herbicides that reduce the need for ploughing, improve soil’s ability to absorb water protecting it against erosion and water run-off.
Agriculture accounts for some 70% of global fresh water withdrawal, but up to 40% of this water is wasted by inefficient practices such as field flooding. By 2025, it is estimated that about 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity. Water availability is expected to decrease, yet future global agricultural water consumption alone is estimated to increase by ~19% by 2050, and will be even greater in the absence of any technological progress. In the face of this pressing need around the globe we need to continue developing water efficient technologies.

Syngenta's Good Growth Plan

Further Reading

  • Underground Shifts: Subsidence Review – Subsidence goes hand in hand with groundwater over-extraction. With over 400 out of the 655 cities in China reliant on groundwater, can China mitigate subsidence risk? We explore related costs such as infrastructure damage, saltwater intrusion & increased desertification
  • Food, Weather & Water Heading North – Global weather patterns have shifted with major implications for agriculture. Find out what it means for the sector if food, water and weather are all heading North in China.
  • Agriculture: A Prosperous Ever After? – With recent reports on by the Chinese government, FAO, HSBC and WEF all highlighting agriculture concerns, Debra Tan takes a closer look at food, property. the weather and potential strategies to ensure a prosperous ever after.
  • Water: Shaping China’s Food & Energy Choices – Debra talks about key issues & new trends surfacing from the Fortune Global Forum roundtable and why she thinks the 12FYP Strategic Emerging Industries are the real Magnificent Seven.
  • Grow Smarter – Does more feed automatically mean more water? BASF Asia Pacific head of Food & Agriculture shares six ideas to help China’s agriculture industry use water more efficiently.
  • Sodexo: Addressing Water Scarcity – With agriculture as the largest user and polluter of water in China, there are growing concerns over food security and raw material supply. Food giant Sodexo explains how their “Better Tomorrow Plan” moves to mitigate water risk.
  • Asia’s Food Supply Chains at Risk – China Water Risk reviews World Resources Institute’s Weeding Risk, published April 2010. The report identifies potential financial impacts arising from water scarcity and climate change on publicly listed companies in the F&B sector in South and Southeast Asia.
Dr. Raghvendra Sandhikar
Author: Dr. Raghvendra Sandhikar
Raghvendra Sandhikar is Vice President and Head of Solutions Development at Syngenta South Asia. Sandhikar has more than 20 years of experience in the field of Agriculture and is a proficient scientist and marketing professional. Having worked across different geographies in India, he thoroughly understands the problems and issues of the farming community. Sandhikar works with key stakeholders and develops integrated technologies that help in addressing the challenges of farm productivity, degradation of soil fertility and water efficiency. He is currently leading projects focusing on improving irrigation technologies, innovations in farm machinery and developing ‘Integrated crop solutions’ that includes superior hybrids, crop protection and crop enhancement products. Sandhikar holds a doctorate in Plant Pathology.
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