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Focussing effort: M.S. Swaminathan says massive infrastructure investment in the 11th Plan could make the country self-sufficient in food.

Focussing effort: M.S. Swaminathan says massive infrastructure investment in the 11th Plan could make the country self-sufficient in food.

Untapped farm production, food crisis offer a great opportunity

Untapped farm production, food crisis offer a great opportunity

Kochi: What Indian agriculture needs now is a separate trade body to tackle issues of subsidies and conservation, a land use policy to protect prime agricultural land, and the promotion of a cultivation pattern that ensures income and work security for farmers, says M.S. Swaminathan, architect of the Green Revolution. Complacency over the past 15 years has led to a food crisis and farmer suicides, he says.

In an interview with Mint, the agriculture scientist and member of the Rajya Sabha says the food crisis could prove to be a great opportunity to extend agricultural operations in a big way. Edited excerpts:

Focussing effort: M.S. Swaminathan says massive infrastructure investment in the 11th Plan could make the country self-sufficient in food.

India has the highest untapped agriculture production reservoir in the world. This, coupled with the global food crisis, offers a great opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. Over the past 15 years, complacency has set in and agriculture, the country’s mainstay, lost focus. But, we appear to have realized the need to reverse this and there will be massive investment in rural infrastructure during the 11th Five-Year Plan (2007-12), which could make India self- sufficient in food.

But there is a view that India need not invest in agriculture as it is becoming expensive, and we can instead import food to resolve a crisis whenever it occurs.

There are two factors that act against agriculture—high energy cost and climate change. A rollback of energy costs is most unlikely. In western countries, agriculture is energy-intensive but energy was cheap and crude oil was less than $1 a barrel when these nations were developing. Besides, less than 3% of their population is engaged in agriculture, so the rest can afford to subsidize them.

But, energy costs are soaring now when countries like ours are developing. In India, about 70% of the population is engaged in agriculture. Our food security must be built on home-grown food, and import is not the answer since production cost in developed countries is rising. If we invest in rural infrastructure and post-harvest technology, and look at production techniques and ways to cope with climate changes, we will be in a position to feed ourselves and others as well.

Take the case of rice. We cultivate 47 million ha, and produce 97 million tonnes, (or mt). China has only 30 million ha producing 150mt. Even if we reduce the acreage to 40 million ha and raise productivity to 5mt a hectare, we can more than double our production. We should build a bridge-the-yield gap movement. Money is available. We have Rs25,000 crore through the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (national agriculture development scheme) and another Rs5,000 crore through the national food security mission.

But development is shrinking cultivable land. Given the higher returns from commercial use of land, how do we tide over the crisis?

We urgently need a land use policy that will mark different lands for conservation. That is why in the Farmers Commission (a national commission on farmers set up by the agriculture ministry to suggest a road map to revive India’s farms), it was recommended that there be such a policy of conserving prime cultivable land, which is done even in industrialized countries.

After the Green Revolution, we have seen that much of the organic nature of land has been lost with large use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. How do we tackle this in the next phase?

Let us look at other aspects that support agriculture. We have an animal wealth that provides employment to 75 million people in dairy and is the backbone for organic farming as it supplies manure to the farms. This can be supplemented by compost and crop rotation. We have to look at farming systems that provide income and work security to the farmer. Group farming by small farmers was successfully tried in Kerala some years ago.

Migration to cities poses a serious problem for agriculture. Our food habits are changing as well. What do you think can make farmers remain in the agriculture sector?

Lack of infrastructure in rural areas such as good schools and hospitals is a key reason for migration, as also a lack of jobs. If we upgrade infrastructure in rural areas, much of this problem will be solved.

As for changing food habits, cultivating more fruits and vegetables is good for horticulture, the production ofwhich is expected to double to 300mt in the next four to five years.

Another serious problem that farmers face is poor price realization. What is the way to address this? How far is the futures market a success?

Social marketing is a solution. We have seen its success in dairy through Amul or the apple farmers’ venture in Himachal Pradesh, supplying apple juice.

Having group marketing by pooling the produce and directly selling it has been tried successfully in various parts of the country. Small self-help groups are an answer to this. The farmer has to sell his produce and get a fair share of the consumer’s money immediately. When the present matters more to him and the future is not an issue,where is the relevance of futures trade?

There is serious opposition to genetically modified, or GM, seeds. How do you view this?

GM crops can be good or bad. It is a process of technological evolution. It is how best they are put to uses that matter in the end.

In a globalized economy, subsidy is a bad word. But the farm sector needs economical support. How will this be possible?

Trade now is free but not fair. The developed countries that are opposing subsidies provide the largest amount of subsidy to the farm sector in the name of conservation, without attracting thenotice of the World Trade Organization, or WTO. India now offers subsidy much below WTO limits.

WTO’s opposition is because subsidies can distort competitiveness in the global market. For a country that exports hardly 5% of its agriculture produce, this is not an issue. It is life-saving support. We have to develop our own policy. Create an Indian trade organization to protect our agriculture interests, and even consider providing interest-free loans to farmers, as done in China.

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