Geneva competition awards app tackling air pollution from crop burning

An Indian farmer walks beside burning paddy crop stubble on the outskirts of Amritsar, Punjab state, India. (Keystone/AP Photo/Prabhjot Gill)

Crop stubble burning is practiced by farmers worldwide as a cheap and fast way to clear crops for new harvests. But it is also responsible for more than one third of global emissions from biomass burning. An app created by students and selected as the winner of this year’s Geneva Challenge competition offers a new way to tackle the problem.

Every winter in northern India, as temperatures fall and the year draws to a close, the air gets thick with smoke. Millions of farmers burn their leftover crop stubble after the season’s harvest, emitting thick smoke that blankets the states of the country’s farm belt and the capital New Delhi.

Stubble burning accounts for 40 per cent of air pollution in New Delhi alone, where smoke travels on the wind from agricultural states such as Punjab and Haryana and settles on the city in a thick smog.

Many of the small and medium-holder farmers in the northern states do not have the means to buy expensive machines to clear their crops, or the time to do so by hand. Burning crop stubble is simply the quickest and cheapest way for them to clear crop waste.

Attempts by the India government to reduce the practice by offering farmers alternative solutions have largely failed over the years. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pledged to set up a fund to help farmers get rid of rice paddy waste by using machines.

But nearly four years and billions of rupees later, air quality has not improved. Farmers also accuse the government of failing to provide promised machinery or subsidies to prevent crop burning.

But with India now having the highest levels of air pollution globally, a solution is needed. All of India’s 1.3 billion residents across the country are breathing air that exceeds guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), which cuts an average of nearly six years off their lives, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI).

Seeking to address the crisis of air pollution fuelled by crop burning, a group of students have created a project that would enable farmers to sell these crop stubbles and other by-products to generate alternative income.

Buyby, a project created by five masters students from Stanford and Yale University in the United States, was the winner of this year’s Geneva Challenge. An annual competition run by the Graduate Institute, the Geneva Challenge invites young people from all over the world to develop projects that find solutions to advance the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The annual competition’s 2021 edition, which wrapped up in Geneva yesterday, asked students to develop projects that addressed the challenges of crisis management facing the world today.

Project Buyby is a software-based marketplace app that enables farmers to sell crop stubbles and other by-products to generate alternative income rather than burning them.

“We try to offer farmers an incentive to not just burn the byproducts but to show that these have actual value and can be utilised and sold instead,” explained Maximilian Schubert, an environmental student at the Yale School of the Environment, who was part of the winning team behind Buyby.

“Instead of burning, we want farmers to also harvest the byproducts in order to sell them and improve their own living conditions economically as well as avoid the environmental impact.”

As 70 per cent of people in India and 60 per cent of farmers in Punjab have access to a smartphone, the app would have the potential to reach millions of potential users.

Although the team focused on the Punjab region of India for their project, Schubert says the app could be adapted for users in countries around the world based on local research and needs, offering grassroots solutions to a global problem.

Crop stubble burning is not only used by farmers in India, but is popular in countries such as China, Nigeria and across South East Asia. It is particularly prevalent in developing and emerging economies, where it makes up more than 60 per cent of all biomass burnt.

Accounting for more than one third of global emissions from biomass burning worldwide, the environmental impact of crop burning is severe, fueling air pollution, soil degradation and climate change. Ninety per cent of the world's population currently breathes air that exceeds WHO guidelines for contamination, the majority of which lives in developing countries, and poor air quality causes seven million deaths per year.

“We're looking to address the crisis of air pollution,” says Schubert. “The open burning of biomass is a massive problem in the world and accounts for millions of tons of carbon emissions annually. Also, as it's open burning, the black carbon is polluting the air significantly with particulate matter. ”

Made up of five students ranging from 24 to 28 years old, the project Buyby team wanted to promote a “more circular economy”, explains Schubert, using byproducts from other industries as input for different sectors.

“The burning of the stubbles is a problem in terms of the long-term sustainability of agriculture as it burns organic matter in the soil, reducing the retention rate of nutrients in the soil, meaning farmers would need more fertiliser,” he says. “So it's a problem that is very multifaceted, and we thought that applying a market-driven solution by providing financial incentives would be the best way to tackle that.”

Buyby received CHF10,000 in prize money, which will go towards funding the development of the concept. The team has already begun reaching out to experts who can provide them with guidance on how to move forward. Their first focus will be on raising more seed funding to hopefully make their innovative idea a reality.

The four other finalist teams made up of young people from across the world also received funding to develop their concepts, which sought to address challenges spanning from waste generated by food delivery companies, food insecurity and water pollution.

“It's really inspiring and motivating to see the ideas young people from all over the world have, and see them applying solutions to their own country and abroad, and they're so creative,” says Schubert.

“Every single person can really make a difference,” he adds. “It sounds so cliché, but it's true.”