Zero tillage in the rice-wheat systems of the Indo-Gangetic Plains

A review of impacts and sustainability implications

Olaf Erenstein
ifpri discussion paper

This paper reviews the success of zero-tillage wheat in the rice-wheat systems of the Indo-Gangetic Plains. Diffusion of the zero- tillage technology increased in the last decade, particularly in northwest India. In 2008, in India alone, the aggregate area in zero- or reduced- tillage wheat amounted to 1.76 million hectares, and it was used by 620,000 farmers. Zero-tillage wheat allows for a drastic reduction in tillage intensity, resulting in significant cost savings as well as potential gains in wheat yield through earlier planting of wheat. Wheat farmers who adopted zero tillage could enhance their farm income by about US$100 per hectare. The cost-saving effect alone makes zero tillage profitable and is the main driver behind its spread. The potential environmental benefits of zero tillage have yet to be fully realized and imply tackling the challenge of reducing tillage for the rice crop that follows wheat, retaining crop residues as mulch, and diversification of crops. Equity also poses a challenge: there is a need to extend the gains more rigorously to the less endowed areas and farmers. Zero tillage’s impact has been achieved through an intervention that has proven privately attractive; an enabling process that combined elements of persistence, flexibility, inclusiveness, and facilitation; and a context that implied the need for change. To replicate and extend this success, viable and dynamic innovation systems should be developed that can deliver and adapt interventions such as zero tillage. Addressing the existing knowledge gaps regarding zero tillage’s socioeconomic, livelihood, and environmental impacts would enhance the ability to outscale in a cost-effective, equitable, and sustainable manner.