Jalandhar: With the right technology and policies, India could help feed the world. Instead, it can barely feed itself.
India’s supply of arable land is second only to that of the US, its economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, and its industrial innovation is legendary. But when it comes to agriculture, its output lags far behind potential. For some staples, India must turn to already stretched international markets, exacerbating a global food crisis.
Grain crisis: Migrant workers thresh wheat in Punjab. India’s food production, despite its potential, is lagging behind population growth.
It was not supposed to be this way. Forty years ago, a giant development effort known as the green revolution drove hunger from an India synonymous with famine and want. Now, after a decade of neglect, this country is growing faster than its ability to produce more rice and wheat.
The problem has grown so dire that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for a second green revolution “so that the spectre of food shortages is banished from the horizon once again.”
And while Singh worries about feeding the poor, India’s growing affluent population demands not only more food but also a greater variety.
Today Indian agriculture is a double tragedy. “Both in rice and wheat, India has a large untapped reservoir. It can make a major contribution to the world food crisis,” said M.S. Swaminathan, a plant geneticist who helped bring the Green Revolution to India.
India’s own people are paying as well. Farmers, most subsisting on small, rain-fed plots, are disproportionately poor, and inflation has soared past 11%, the highest in 13 years.
Experts blame the agriculture slowdown on a variety of factors. The green revolution introduced high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, expanded the use of irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers, and transformed the northwestern plains into India’s breadbasket. Between 1968 and 1998, the production of cereals in India more than doubled.
But since the 80s, the government has not expanded irrigation, access to loans for farmers, or to advance research. Groundwater has been depleted at alarming rates.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington says changes in temperature and rain patterns could diminish India’s agricultural output by 30% by the 2080s. Family farms have shrunk in size and quantity, and a few years ago mounting debt began to drive some farmers to suicide. Now many find it more profitable to sell their land to developers of industrial buildings.
Among farmers who stay on their land, many are experimenting with growing high-value fruits and vegetables that prosperous Indians are craving, but there are few refrigerated trucks to transport their produce to supermarkets.
A long and inefficient supply chain means that the average farmer receives less than a fifth of the price the consumer pays, a World Bank study found, far less than farmers in, say, Thailand or the US.
India raised a red flag two years ago about how heavily the appetites of its 1.1 billion people would weigh on world food prices. For the first time in many years, India had to import wheat for its grain stockpile. In two years it bought about 7mt.
Today, two staple elements are imported because farmers cannot keep up with growing demand — pulses, like lentils and peas, and vegetable oils, the main sources of protein and calories.
“India could be a big actor in supplying food to the rest of the world if the existing agricultural productivity gap could be closed,” said Adolfo Brizzi, manager of the South Asia agriculture programme at the World Bank in Washington. “When it goes to the market to import, it typically puts pressure on international market prices, and every time India goes for export, it increases the supply and therefore mitigates the price levels.”
Recently, in a village called Udhopur, not far from here, Harmail Singh, 60, wondered how farmers could possibly be expected to grow more grain.
“The cultivable land is shrinking and government policies are not farmer friendly,” he said, adding, “our next generation is not willing to work in agriculture. They say it is a losing proposition.”
The luckiest farmers make more money selling out to land-hungry mall developers.
How to address these challenges is a matter of debate. From one quarter comes pressure to introduce genetically modified crops with greater yields; from another come lawsuits to stop it. And from yet another come pleas to mount a greener green revolution.
Alexander Evans, author of a recent paper on food prices published by Chatham House, a British research institution, said: “This time around, it needs to be more efficient in its use of water, in its use of energy, in its use of fertilizer and land.”
Swaminathan wants to dedicate villages to sowing lentils and oilseeds. The World Bank, meanwhile, favours high-value crops, like Chawla’s baby corn.
The market may yet help India. Chawla, for instance, has replaced baby corn with sunflowers, prompted by the high price of sunflower oil. For the same reason, he is also considering planting more wheat.
© The New York Times
Hari Kumar contributed to this story.