There is much that has gone wrong in Indian agriculture. Here is a partial list: lack of public investment in the last two decades, galloping subsidies eating into the vitals of the sector and gross politicization of pricing decisions. To be sure, this list can be extended greatly. But what is missing here is the technology fatigue that has beset our farmers for a long time now.
There is ample evidence for that. But first a question: which crop witnessed the highest growth in output in the nine years from 1999-2000 to 2007-08? Chances are you don’t know. If you knew, the link between stagnant crop yields and a still technological scene would be apparent at once. But more on this anon.
The last time a technological breakthrough was willingly adopted in our agriculture was when the hybrid seeds, fertilizer and irrigation package (the so-called Green Revolution) was adopted in the mid-1960s. That advance has now exhausted its course. From 1999-2000 to 2007-08, rice output increased only by 1.3% and wheat by a mere 0.1% per year. In contrast, the growth for rice and wheat in the 1980s stood at 2.7% and 3.4%, respectively. Pulses and sugar cane output declined from 1999-2000 to 2007-08.
There are good reasons for that. Wheat and rice have reached their biotic frontier. There are biological reasons why applying more fertilizer will not increase output. There are, of course, shortcomings in agricultural practices, but those are due to an uncaring agricultural extension service across the country. Extension service officers are to be found everywhere, except with farmers in their fields.
To return to the question asked above: which crop prospered? Cotton. Much of the cotton story has to do with the dramatic improvements in output in western India due to the introduction of Bt cotton. Cotton output grew by three times in the period 1999-2000 to 2007-08 when output fell for other crops.
The lesson here is clear: If we are to overcome a technology fatigue (as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the problem in 2007), it is important that we adopt biotechnology willingly. Here the question is not about Bt brinjal alone, it involves staples such as rice and wheat. Biotechnology can overcome the biotic frontier and bring our agriculture back on the rails.
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