A farmer burns straw stubble after harvesting a paddy crop

Crop residue burning in Pakistan: A systems approach towards sustainability

Blog Sustainable Growth

Despite bans and air quality concerns, farmers continue to burn crop residues; an integrated response that applies systems thinking across economic, regulatory, and information policy is needed for change.

The poor air quality in Pakistan can cost its citizens 4.3 years of their life on average. A major contributor to air pollution is crop burning. Despite known risks, it is a common practice, particularly prevalent in Punjab’s wheat-rice belt, which constitutes over 80% of its cropped area.

Each winter, an estimated 3.6 - 5 of 8.5 million tons of rice residue is burnt to plant wheat. Resultant fires exacerbate Punjab’s winter smog. Despite a ban, limitations in policy implementation and uncertainty around access and returns to alternatives sustain this practice.

Using a systems approach and a multi-level perspective, policies need to address crop burning in Punjab and usher in  a socio-technical shift towards sustainable agriculture. This blog outlines Punjab’s policy context, and proposes a policy mix to respond to interrelated market and system failures that are hindering adoption of sustainable practices.

Framing crop burning in social, economic, and institutional context

Framings are important to understand the complexity of sustainability challenges, and to identify potential trade-offs of different policy approaches. Crop burning impacts several planetary boundaries and in Pakistan, is responsible for nearly a fifth of air pollution. It also creates black carbon  a major contributor to global warming, possibly second to CO2.

While curtailing such practices is important to stabilise climate systems and safeguard agriculture productivity. it is also critical to human wellbeing. Toxic emissions generated by crop burning prolong smog, which is detrimental to health. These emissions lead to over 20,000 premature adult deaths in Pakistan, and over 160,000 disability-adjusted life years lost due to sickness, disability, or early deaths. The direct and indirect costs of air pollution also result in a loss of 6.5% of GDP annually.

A systems approach entails framing air pollution, with all its costs, in ways that recognise implications of sustainability and innovation on different population segments. Policy responses must incorporate these views, as proposed solutions can create new sustainability challenges.

For example, without access to cost-effective alternatives, a blanket ban on crop burning can adversely impact farmer income. The policy mix should ensure equity (i.e., affordability and fairness), environmental sustainability, and economic efficiency (i.e., create value-added opportunities and enhance agricultural productivity). Crop burning also influences traditions of farming communities. The cost of change should not be borne by farmers alone.

Transition towards a system that discourages crop burning requires focusing not just on farmers’ practices, but also on the system within which they operate, containing other actors (such as government authorities, agriculture extension services, and research institutes). This network of public and private institutions in turn shape innovative solutions, practices, and technologies.

Current challenges in coordination, enforcement, and adoption of alternative technologies

As part of its Environmental Protection Act (2012), the Punjab Government has introduced several policies and regulations concerning air quality and crop burning. It recently launched a Clean Air policy, and a set of smog rules that strictly prohibit crop burning.

However, due to lack of a cohesive roadmap, Punjab’s Environment Protection Department lacks support from other departments to enforce these measures. The regulatory framework around air pollution also lacks a strong scientific base. Punjab’s only source apportionment study is now five years old. The Air Quality Index does not conform to international standards. Many government air monitors are non-functional.

District governments may fine farmers up to US$ 200 per acre in case of a violation, but in the absence of feasible alternatives, farmers do not find the fine prohibitive ). The government also recently introduced subsidised ‘happy-seeders’ for small farmers in 15 major rice-growing districts in Punjab. Compared to traditional seeders, happy-seeders cut operating costs by half, incorporate residue back into the soil, and potentially reduce GHG emissions by 78% per hectare (Shyamsundar et al., 2019). Yet uptake remains restricted; these machines have to be mounted on tractors (with a minimum horsepower) that many farmers do not have.

Lack of an effective policy response results from a system failure (Foxon, 2007) to recognise information and technological gaps, market barriers, and inadequate policy support for innovative solutions. Enforcement and compliance remain major challenges in government’s overall command-and-control approach (Luna, Kyu Kim, and Ely, 2022). Incorporating a healthy mix of instrument types (economic, regulatory and information) that link different aspects of innovation (technology push, market/demand pull, and systemic) can lead to more effective and sustainable solutions for reducing crop burning.

A systems approach to crop residue burning: understanding barriers, levels, and feedback loops

While the failure of the current policy regime opens doors to explore policy changes that can pave the way towards sustainable agriculture systems, this requires understanding why crop burning continues. Implementing isolated solutions without considering the broader system risks unintended consequences. A systems approach acknowledges interconnectedness of various elements  like agriculture, resources, environment, and markets to enable and sustain the transition.

In Pakistan, the agriculture system is locked into crop burning due to self-reinforcing feedback loops, both negative and positive. During the crop-burning period, severity and frequency of illnesses rise, increasing health costs incurred by households, strengthening conviction that crop burning is a necessary economic tool to pay for these rising health costs. Despite being aware of adverse health impacts, farmers still choose to burn residue. Limited alternatives also reinforce this view. Ingrained over generations, crop burning is an acceptable part of the local farming culture and deeply embedded, challenging sustainability transitions.

Externalities resulting from crop burning raise social costs beyond each farmer’s private costs Since individual costs are lower than the consequent externalities, there is no incentive to adopt sustainable practices. Information asymmetries further make farmers perceive crop burning as beneficial and affordable. Addressing these market failures matters as informed farmers are less likely to burn residue. 

Farmers also lack affordable, eco-friendly alternatives, while manual stubble removal raises their costs by 30%. Possible alternatives reliant on behaviour change struggle without technical assistance, while underdeveloped markets limit residue use.

Excessive reliance on monoculture is also an important cause. Diverse crops with staggered harvest periods can lessen the need for urgent field clearing. However, crop-diversification can be complex, involving significant public investment, development of skills, and measures to ensure transition risks are shared fairly.

Positive feedback loops that link reduced burning to improved financial wellbeing and health, are key for transformative change. A systems approach - by connecting productivity, livelihoods, health, technology, environment, and economic wellbeing – can help design interventions to mitigate negative feedback loops and leverage positive ones.

The multi-level perspective is a valuable framework to guide a transformative policy mix. It identifies innovative approaches at three levels: regime, landscape, and niche.

  • Crop burning is a widely-accepted practice embedded in the socio-technical regime of rice-wheat farming. Inadequate policies and enforcement, information asymmetries, and absence of eco-friendly alternatives and residue markets hinder change at this level.
  • Landscape factors like climate change, energy security, and public opinions can influence the transition. Pakistan's commitment to the Paris Agreement and inaugural National Climate Change Adaptation Plan 2023  underline the need for sustainable agricultural practices against climate change.
  • To move away from crop burning, niche innovations need to emerge to challenge the regime. Punjab is exploring farming innovations like zero-tillage techniques. The government’s Mechanised Management of Rice Crop Residue programme is also providing subsidised equipment and technical support to farmers. Agriculture research institutes are investigating alternate residue uses.  

There can also be an interface across these levels to reinforce positive feedback loops. Successful pilot projects can increase government support for sustainable practices. Advocacy by civil society can prompt policymakers to place stricter regulations. Positive changes in public expectations can create demand for sustainable products, driving farmers to adopt alternatives to crop burning.

A comprehensive policy response: incentives, information, and limited bans

A comprehensive policy mix will be vital to respond to these interconnected market and system failures. Landscape drivers can push changes at the regime level, while niche innovations can be introduced to sustain the transition. Single policies are unlikely to guarantee sustainability transitions. Soft measures like awareness campaigns alone are insufficient. While regulatory measures like bans can help achieve environmental outcomes, penalties aren’t always deterrents when viable alternatives are missing. Economic measures like subsidies aid technology access, but do not ensure technically accurate application. Since at least 85% farmers in Punjab own under 10 hectares, farm size limits capacity for technology uptake .

Innovative market-pull solutions like residue markets and eco-system payments can address equity concerns, spurring jobs and green energy production. Energy produced though crop residues can potentially meet 14% of Pakistan’s energy needs. However, success of these solutions hinges on robust innovation systems, such as efficient extension services to ensure technology transfer to farmers, operational social protection infrastructure, research-industry collaborations, market development, and private sector involvement – each requiring their own policy structures. A combination of economic, regulatory, and soft policy instruments is needed.

One may also map out potential functions of each policy instrument  to see that an ideal mix will not only have a creative function (knowledge development and diffusion, market formation among others) but also destabilise the existing regime (via control policies such as bans/penalties, changing regime rules by introduce new smog rules among others) to make space for the transition.

Table 1: Different policy instruments to curb crop burning

Table 1: Different policy instruments for crop burning

Notes: Table by author.


A systems perspective highlights that farmers alone aren’t responsible for crop burning. It includes regulations and constraints, to which farmers respond. This briefing proposes a strategy of blending selected policy tools for sustainable agriculture transition. Combining short-term rules and long-term economic and soft approaches can yield balanced outcomes. A mix of regulatory, economic, and soft instruments can address multiple drivers of crop burning (market failures, lack of alternatives, and unsustainable practices).

The following broad policy areas can be prioritised: economic measures to ensure accessibility and availability of alternative residue management techniques and facilitate residue markets; regulatory measures (fines and bans) to halt crop burning; and soft measures to raise awareness about crop burning’s impacts and alternatives.

Immediate regulatory measures often overlook more systemic aspects of crop burning, creating undesirable consequences. However, regulations like price support and usage ratios can stimulate innovation and new markets, such as for crop residue. An essential intervention is assigning economic value to crop residue to deter farmers from burning. In parallel, long-term fixes should focus on crop diversification to ease pressures to clear residue. Support for farmers and entrepreneurial innovation can yield equitable, sustainable system changes.

Finally, crop burning and air quality goes through cycles of attention. Public and policy focus spikes during winter smog crises.. Such events might create policy windows. However, institutional capacity may limit collaborative approaches to act when these windows open.

This blog follows Hina Shaikh's previous piece, 'Stubble burning in Pakistan: Why it continues and how can it be curtailed?'