THE rice-rice production systems occupy 24 million hectares of cultivated land in the Asian tropics, while the rice-wheat system covers 22 million hectares in the Asian sub-tropics.

Rice-wheat is one of the important cropping systems covering an area of about 2.3 million hectares in our country. A major portion (about 57 per cent) of the rice-wheat area falls in the Punjab. The rice-wheat area of Punjab mainly covers Gujranwala, Sheikhupura and Sialkot districts. Some parts of Gujarat and Lahore districts are also included in the rice-producing area. This system is also well established in Jhang district.

Typically the Kallar belt is the genuine homeland of the ‘basmati’ variety. The pleasant and sweet fragrant basmati rice has the quality of elongation when cooked and the fluffiness that make it unique in the world. This particular basmati rice is found only in the Punjab .To grow more quality food from marginal/degraded land and diminishing water resources, there is a need to improve the productivity of rice-wheat system to make it more viable and eco-friendly.

In favourable production environment in these systems, farmers intensified their production methods using chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which resulted in better yield in the irrigated areas in 1965- 85. Reports show that increase in grain production is now threatened by stagnant yields and declining factor in productivity for both rice and wheat since mid-1980s. The decline in soil organic matter leading to a decrease in soil N and K supply, growing scarcity of surface and ground water for irrigation and the build up of insect and disease pressures are indicators of threat to ecological sustainability of the system.

Future growth required to meet increasing population must come from better yield rather than increase in area of growth since the latter will be declining as urbanisation and industries spread to prime agricultural land. Competition for water will be a major challenge for agriculture and it is imperative that this scarce resource is used efficiently.

The present intensive cropping method of the rice-wheat system in vogue was not the tradition in past, instead one crop a year was cultivated. About three decades ago rice-wheat sequential cropping system began to take-off. With short duration varieties, synthetic fertilisers and tube-well installation for irrigation made it possible to grow two crops in a year.

The continuous sequential cropping faces problem of stagnation of the rice-wheat productivity in many countries. Evidences from some long-term experiments show that problems of stagnating yields and even decline in yield are taking place in the rice-wheat system of South Asia. Total factor productivity is declining and farmers have to apply more fertiliser to obtain the same yields. New weeds, pests, and diseases are creating more problems, whereas irrigation water is scarce. Farmers are complaining about high input costs and low prices for their produce. Marketing of excess production is a burden for farmers and storage is a problem for government.

Therefore, a huge challenge exists in the region to meet future food demand without damaging the natural resource base on which agriculture depends, producing food at a cost that is affordable by the poor and with incentives to farmers that allow them to improve their livelihood and ultimately alleviate poverty. Resource conserving technologies (e.g. zero-tillage, bed planting or direct seeding of rice) must be evaluated since they play a major role in achieving the above goals.

The rice-wheat system of Punjab, a part of the Indo-Gangetic plains, has registered the same experience time and again. The agro-ecosystem of the area is deteriorating. Low soil fertility is the common problem. Insect and weed intensity is swarming. Water resources are not being identified to meet irrigation requirements; as a result, the rice-wheat cropping system is on the verge of collapse. Thus food security in the country will be under serious threat from the emerging challenges, such as production of more quality food from the marginal land and water resources and the development of rice-wheat systems would be profitable, sustainable and environment-friendly at less cost.

Fortunately various stakeholders, concerned with rice-wheat production, have shown concern over the situation and have made efforts to overcome the problem. There is, therefore, a big challenge ahead in the region to meet future food demands without damaging natural resource base, producing food at an affordable cost, and with incentives to farmers that allow them to improve their lot and alleviate poverty.

In this regard the following suggestions may prove helpful in enhancing productivity of rice-wheat farming system in the country in general and in Punjab in particular:

Intervention of short duration green manure crops in rice-wheat rotation has the potential for the restoration of soil fertility. Similarly developing schedules to break continuous rice-wheat rotation at proper intervals by various break crops is necessary. In this regard, detailed on-farm experimentation on break crops to restore the soil fertility is required.

Improved, certified and properly treated seed is pre-requisite to achieve required plant population. Provision of tested and certified seed at affordable prices will be helpful in realising good returns. Involvement of more seed companies in the private sector may create competition in the seed market resulting in low prices and better quality.

Insect, pest and weed control can be achieved successfully through Integrated Pest Management (IPM). In this regard IPM strategies for the rice-wheat system are imperative. A well-planned campaign is necessary to familiarise the farmers about IPM techniques. However, monitoring of pesticides for quality control is required on priority basis to save farmers from being deceived and looted.

The shortage of irrigation water necessitates water conservation techniques ranging from field levelling to agronomic practices. Various on-farm agronomic trails for water conservation and increasing water use efficiency for different crops are necessary to save this scarce resource. Time allocation schedule may be revised to accommodate the farms at the tail of watercourses.

Transfer of knowledge-based technologies to the farming community can play a vital role in increasing productivity. Weak linkages in the present extension system can be removed through promotion of participatory approaches and expanded partnerships of the stakeholders by various national and international organisations.

Use of mechanical rice planter and no-tillage technology for wheat cultivation at proper time needs proper consideration in these areas to offset the labour shortage problems during peak labour requirements.

There is a need that the poor farmers be provided institutional credit facilities with easy access, less paper work and affordable interest rates. It will help them follow recommendations and suggestions of the researchers in terms of finance availability. Exploitation of farmers by various market intermediaries, either in availing the informal loans or produce disposal, needs to be checked so that farmers are protected against their unlawful practices. This necessitates the implementation of support price in letter and in spirit.

A basket of resource conserving technologies which have been developed and made available to farmers for experimentation and adoption, have a greater scope to address many problems. Some are based on reduced tillage for wheat including zero-tillage. Bed planting systems have the scope to increase water productivity while laser levelling combined with these tillage systems provides additional benefits. Many of the benefits of the tillage options for wheat are lost when rice soils are traditionally puddled. Use of groundwater to obtain early rice planting and efficient use of rainwater is another technology.

Speeding up and investigating the bio-catalytic mechanisms governing the cycle, supply, and uptake of various nutrients in submerged crop soils along with evaluating biophysical and socioeconomic causes of variability in soil fertility and input use efficiency may be quite helpful for the improvement of the rice-wheat cropping system.