India is expecting to reverse a decline and actually record a 14% jump in pulses production to 17 million tonnes (mt) in 2008-09.
With prices spurting to record highs, farmers are likely to bring more area under pulses cultivation even as the country will harvest the first batch of a high-yielding, hybrid variety of pigeon-peas (arhar), which is expected to push up their yields by 25%.
“The high prices will surely encourage farmers. Next year, we are aiming for 17mt, banking on the success of the new seeds,” said an agriculture ministry official who didn’t wish to be identified.
The severe shortage of pulses has led to a spurt of about 30-35% in market prices last year, forcing the government to import a record 4.3mt in 2006-07.
As an incentive to farmers to shift to pulses production, the government has hiked minimum support prices this year. The prices for the kharif season (June-October) were raised by around 13-14%, to Rs1,590 per quintal for pigeon-peas and Rs1,740 for moong dal and black gram (urad). This is in sharp contrast to last year, when the government left all prices unchanged, except for pigeon-peas, which went up by Rs10.
Since 2001-02, India’s production of pulses has trailed demand by two-three mt on an average, resulting in higher imports and prices. Last July, pulses, ranging from gram to chickpeas, retailed at Rs38-80 a kg, compared with Rs25-40 in the previous year.
Output in 2006-07 was estimated at 14.1mt. In the current year, the kharif forecast is yet to be put out, but officials are optimistic about a marginally higher production of 14.9mt in 2007-08.
Abhijit Sen, the Planning Commission member who is in charge of agriculture, said, “Pulses are the weakest point in our agricultural system. For 30 years, production has been stagnating at 12-15mt. We import, but nobody quite produces the kinds (of pulses) that we really want.”
Consider pigeon-peas. Called the poor man’s protein, pigeon-peas, along with gram (chana dal), accounts for one-fifth of total demand, but is also the favourite of poor farmers as it is hardy, grows without fertilizer and can be produced between other crops for cash. But India already grows 85% of the global supply of pigeon-peas, making significant imports unlikely.
Pigeon-peas is planted on more than 3.2 million hectares in India to give a crop of ideally 2.5-2.8mt. Imports come to about 0.5mt, from Mozambique as well as Myanmar.
“The global demand for pigeon-peas is slated to go up from 2.2mt now to 4mt in 2009. The continued (rise in) demand will ensure that it will remain under-imported,” said Siwa Msangi, researcher at the International Food Policy Research?Institute in Washington.
Because of the shortages, “per capita availability is only 12kg, including 10% import, compared with more than 19kg during 1971-75,” said Ramesh Chand, an Indian Council of Agricultural Research (Icar) professor with the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research. “The decline in protein intake caused by eating less pulses is far higher than what one gains by eating more vegetables or fish and meat. Demand is rising by 2% a year, while production has zero growth.”
The government is betting that supplies could be boosted by the use of the high-yielding hybrid variety of pigeon-peas developed by the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat), a non-profit multilateral organization under the Washington-based Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
The new technology to push production of pulses through higher yields has been commended even by eminent agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, who said the new variety is “capable of launching a pulses revolution just as the semi-dwarf varieties triggered the wheat and rice revolution (the Green Revolution) that bypassed pulses in the 1960s”.
The strain was developed by Icrisat at Patancheru near Hyderabad, after two decades of research. “The new commercially-viable system to produce hybrid seeds has the potential to increase yield by at least 50%,” says K.B. Saxena, the scientist who developed the technology.
Saxena, whose work was profiled in Science Magazine in April, maintains that the new variety, ICPH 2671, would still need extensive “multiplication” this year. The strain, which was produced from a wild variety in Madhya Pradesh, was found to be the best of 300 hybrids tested over two years and has been taken up by China, the Philippines and Myanmar for trials.
The work was done jointly with Icar, with funding from the government’s seeds mission, Integrated Scheme on Oilseeds Pulses Oil Palm and Maize. It also received help from 18 private seed companies for funding and trials, including Mahyco, Zuari Seeds, Avesthagen, Pioneer and Ankur Seeds. Even the state seeds corporations are running extensive trials in Gulbarga and Raichur districts of Karnataka and in Maharashtra.
“The next two years are very critical,” said Saxena. “Over the last two years, we had extensive experiments in Karnataka and Maharashtra, which gave us 60% higher crop per hectare. This year, the idea is to get 200 tonnes of seed so that next year, we can sow it over 40,000-50,000 hectares. Because these are hybrid seeds, they have to be planted at a distance of 500m from other varieties, though the seeds are resistant to pest attacks.”
The hybrid seeds are likely to raise farming costs as for every fresh sowing, new seeds will be required to retain high yields. The collaborator companies are trying to produce them in bulk, which may reduce costs, considering that the technology is in the public domain. The Swaminathan Foundation is also working with local village women to train them to produce seeds, which would be a low-cost option for subsistence farmers.
Even this may not be enough. “The new pulses mission announced in the budget will get us, over the next year, enough seeds to get us another 2mt of output over the next four years. Till then, we’ll have to import,” says Sen.
Aware of this, the government is also trying other ways to raise production. One of them is to encourage sowing pulses in the wheat and rice growing regions of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Other projects include one for growing pulses in the hilly regions of Uttarakhand such as Almora, as well as along the east coast region of West Bengal, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.