Home / Industry / Agriculture /  How Indian farming can reap more than it sows

NEW DELHI : Last month, while on a visit to the US to meet soybean and corn (maize) growers, this reporter received a text message late one night. “Can you get some (soy) seeds from there, at least one kg? Call me."

The message was from an affluent farmer from central India growing soybeans, pulses, and wheat. The reason for this request? Average soy yield in India—or production per unit of land—is less than a third compared to the US. Which means, to produce a ton of soybeans, farmers in India must plant on three times more land than in the US.

Where the gaps are...
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Where the gaps are...

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The seemingly innocuous request had to be turned down. Carrying genetically modified (GM) soy seeds out of the US is a violation of intellectual property rights (IPR) of the developer. The seeds cannot be carried into India as the transgenic technology is not approved for commercial cultivation. Besides, those seeds meant for temperate climates are unlikely to perform in a tropical country like India.

The farmer from central India is on the lookout for new technology because he is forced to plant seeds which were released for cultivation more than 15 years ago—seeds that have run its course. Ditto for GM cotton where the technology is 16 years old.

Bt cotton was first approved for cultivation in 2002 and has seen no major upgrades since 2006. Which is why cotton growers are now planting unapproved herbicide tolerant GM cotton—to save on labour costs of clearing weeds and plug declining yields. According to estimates by the Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII), nearly a fifth of India’s cotton area is now planted with these illegal seeds.

A quick look at crop yields across the world shows where India is lagging and why farmers are looking for ways to improve yields.

Soy yields in India are three-four times lower compared to the US and Argentina, while mustard yields are almost half compared to canola grown in Canada (mustard and canola belong to the same Brassica genus). India imports both varieties of edible oils to meet its large domestic shortfall.

India is among the top producers of cotton in the world but yields are less than a fourth when compared to China. Average rice yields in India are 57% of China and lower than even Bangladesh and Vietnam. India is the largest producer of milk in the world but cattle milk yields (per animal per year) are 60% of China and less than a fifth of the US.

These yield gaps not only impact farmer incomes but also lead to inefficient and unsustainable use of soils, nutrients, water and land. For instance, irrigation water productivity of rice in Punjab—or the amount of rice produced per unit of irrigated water applied—is even lower than that in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, indicating indiscriminate use of groundwater drawn using free electricity, found a 2018 study.

Yields are important: the world will need 50% more food by 2050 to feed the increasing global population. So, countries need to get on to a technology driven sustainable track, FAO director general Qu Dongyu told a global conference on sustainable production in November.

“Tomorrow’s agriculture will need to produce more food with a lower environmental footprint—this means producing more with less… Science based sustainable plant production can enable this," Qu added.

Improving productivity is the only option left for India to achieve growth in agriculture sector as arable land is shrinking, said Ramesh Chand, farm economist and member of the federal government think-tank Niti Aayog.

“The focus should be to increase output not just per unit of land but also with respect to water and fertilizer use… improving productivity is desirable to meet the growing demand for food and to reduce the carbon footprint of farming," Chand added.

Paying a price

Why are crop yields so abysmally low in India? Experts, economists, and scientists Mint spoke to pointed to several reasons: low investments in public research, a weak IPR regime pushing the private sector away, and small farmers unable to invest in crop management practices and technologies which can improve yields.

“If you ask a farmer in Iowa or Illinois (in the US Midwest) what soybean seeds they used two years back, they may not remember. Because they upgrade with improved varieties almost every year. In India, farmers have been growing the same variety for two decades," said the product development head of a multinational seed giant in North America who did not want to be named.

Who is paying the price for this technology gap? US exported $27 billion worth of soybeans, its largest farm export commodity, in 2021, while India’s edible oil import bill surged to a record $19 billion in the year to March 2022.

As soaring imports of edible oils pushed consumer prices higher, India’s biotech regulator cleared GM mustard for environmental release in October, paving the way for a commercial release within the next two-three years.

In November, the government told the Supreme Court in an ongoing case that ‘opposition to GM technology based on unfounded fears of adverse impact is hurting farmers, consumers and the industry… (India is) committed to improve farm productivity in oilseeds and grain legumes with an explicit goal of making the country Atmanirbhar (self-sufficient).’

A team of scientists led by Deepak Pental, geneticist and former vice chancellor of Delhi University, developed GM mustard way back in 2002. And the Barnase-Barstar technology (a technique to produce hybrid seeds in self-pollinated crops) Pental used was approved in 1996 for canola cultivation in Canada. Ironic indeed, but India is still debating whether to use a 25-year-old technology.

“We don’t want to find new, more benign agrochemicals, we don’t want genetic engineering and we slam our plant breeders. So, what exactly is Indian agriculture aiming for? ... The only thing with science and technology is you can’t bullshit for too long," an exasperated Pental had said in an interview to The Hindu newspaper in 2017.

But a change is in the air. Earlier in May, the government issued guidelines for genome editing, a powerful tool which involves altering plant genes to express traits such as drought-resistance, heat tolerance and improving yields.

“We are now focusing on productivity traits in oilseeds and pulses. India’s first genome edited rice could be ready by 2025," said A K Singh, director of Indian Agricultural Research Institute, the hub of India’s erstwhile Green Revolution.

Singh added that farmers could be growing non-GM herbicide tolerant rice as early as June next year, cutting down yield losses due to weed infestation in rice fields.

Stolen Lines

Yields for most crops have been stagnating due to lack of investments in public research, coupled with poorly enforced patent protection which discourages the private sector to invest and innovate, said Ram Kaundinya, director general of FSII, a seed industry lobby.

“Companies which invested in research and development have seen their parent (plant) lines of cotton and maize hybrids stolen with little or no action on ground," Kaundinya added.

According to Kaundinya, the private industry is not interested to invest in open pollinated varieties (where seeds can be reused by farmers, unlike hybrids) of soybean and cotton as they do not feel confident that existing laws will protect their IPR.

“In cotton, India is the only (large) producer growing hybrids, while the rest of the world is growing open pollinated varieties. In China, high density planting of these varieties alongside mechanized picking results in higher recovery of lint. By imposing price controls and capping royalties (since 2016), India has restricted private-led research in cotton," Kaundinya said.

Moreover, under the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act, 2001, farmers are allowed to reuse, exchange and sell seed of any variety.

“In a way, there is no patent protection of seed so long as it is used by farmers. But farmers are the only market for seed companies… the system has its merits and costs. The cost is that the private sector is only interested in hybrid seeds… because hybrids lose their vigour and farmers are forced to buy hybrid seeds (every year)," said Ramesh Chand from the Niti Aayog.

The private seed industry’s disinterest to invest in research coincided with declining investments in public research. The central budget on agriculture research is a paltry 8,500 crore (for 2022-23), less than 0.25% of the farm sector GDP.

Data from the International Food Policy Research Institute show that total agriculture research spending in India grew from $0.5 billion in 1981 to $4 billion in 2016 (in purchasing power parity terms). During this period, spending in China grew from $0.2 billion to $7.7 billion. By 2016, China alone was spending more on research compared to entire regions like North America ($5.3 billion) and Europe ($7.6 billion).

As climate shocks become frequent, agriculture will emerge as a strategic sector for India and the entire world. And scientific breakthroughs, either by private or public sector, will play a crucial role, Chand said.

“There is an overall feeling that the National Agricultural Research System, which includes central bodies like the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and state agriculture universities (SAUs), has to be strengthened with resources so they have the capacity to deliver… today, most SAUs are starved of funds," he added.

Precision agriculture

Seeds, however, are not the only factor which makes a difference to yields. According to Douglas Winter, a farmer from Illinois and chairperson of the US Soybean Export Council, science-based crop management practices armed with data analytics is equally important.

Soy farmers in the US, for instance, are all praise for the latest variable rate technology (VRT) which helps them track soil health in real time. The soil data, together with data on moisture, temperature and sunlight is used to apply nutrients and seeds at a variable rate across a plot of land. This helps to save on fertilizer and seed expenses.

Farmers in the US Midwest also deploy sustainable practices like mulching, crop rotation, cover crops and zero-till, which aids carbon sequestration, besides adding organic matter and improving soil moisture. The nitrogen fixed by soybean in one season is used by corn in the next, saving precious fertilizers.

Zero-till is an agricultural technique for growing crops without disturbing the soil through mechanical means. A mulch is a layer of organic matter applied on soil to conserve moisture and improve fertility.

The often vilified ‘industrial agriculture’ is not all evil, it seems.

“Since 1940, corn production in the US increased five-fold. Yet, the total acreage planted to corn declined by one-fifth… Modern farming protects the environment not only by using less land compared to several decades ago, it also uses less water, less fossil energy and fewer chemicals for every bushel produced," wrote Robert Paarlberg, adjunct professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, in his 2021 book Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat.

Precision agriculture has seen limited use in India, while sustainable practices like zero-till and mulching are mostly used by growers practicing natural or organic farming. Farm management practices combining modern science with sustainable practices like zero-till are unheard of.

“It is one of the miracle stories of modern development that the allegedly backward, tradition bound Indian farmer has been so responsive to the new technology," C. Subramaniam, India’s then agriculture minister told an audience in New York in 1968, while discussing the early years of Green Revolution.

In his memoirs titled Hand of Destiny, Subramaniam recounts how enterprising farmers from Punjab would pay a small fortune to try out new high yielding seed strains that were available in research labs but in small quantities. Farmers also started their own ‘Tonnage Club.’ Membership was restricted to those who could produce at least a ton of foodgrains in an acre of land.

Half a century later, India could revive that spirit, aiming to produce more with less of land, water and chemicals.

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