Home / Opinion / Views /  What the humble gherkin teaches us about farm policy

The humble kheera (cucumber) serves to demonstrate India’s untapped potential to become a powerhouse of farm produce for the world and to diversify crops away from unwanted grain without bringing millions of furious farmers on to the path of agitation.

India is now the world’s single largest exporter of gherkins, tender cucumbers pickled in brine, earning $223 million in 2020-21 from the export of 223,000 odd tonnes of the vegetable as fresh produce and pickle. That means roughly $1 per kg of gherkin export, or 75 per kg of gherkin export. However, the farmers who grow the vegetable do not earn even a fraction of that. Reportedly, some 90,000 farmers grow cucumbers on 65,000 acres, produce 4 tonnes per acre and earn 80,000 per acre per crop, of which 40,000 is the earning after costs. A farmer gets two crops a year. That means the farmer earns, per kg of his produce, a fraction of the export earning from that kg of produce. To improve the lot of the farmer, a farmer producer organisation (FPO) must convert the raw produce into the value-added export, to increase the farmer’s earnings. Creating FPOs and training farmers to own and run companies, directly or by hiring professionals, and choosing crops for which there is strong domestic or foreign demand would make farming prosperous.

India has one of the world’s most diverse agro-climatic conditions: river basins, coastal areas, arid regions, deserts, all at varying elevations ranging from palm-studded beaches levels to thousands of metres above the sea level and with different soil types. From grain, fruit and vegetables to nuts, herbs, truffles, tea, coffee, spices, cotton and orchids, there is very little that India cannot grow. Commercial cultivation of what would once have been considered alien crops, whether tomato, tea, onion and potato or strawberries, grapes, rubber, vanilla and nutmeg takes place at varying scales across the length and breadth of the country. The Indian palate has got used to broccoli and capsicum as easily as it had been conditioned to traditional eggplant and spinach.

India is a major exporter of farm crops, as it is: Milk products, bovine meat (essentially buffalo), cotton and rice. India lags in the export of fruit and vegetables, for which there is immense scope, as the gherkin story shows.

In the early 1960s, India lived dangerously dependent on food imports from a United States that begrudged us that aid but gave it anyhow, so as to prop up a major non-Communist government in a region that some strategic thinkers thought was rife with incipient Communist takeovers. That ‘ship-to-mouth’ dependence persuaded India’s then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and her food and agriculture minister, C Subramaniam, to launch the Green Revolution that brought in high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, new crop husbandry practices, including the use of synthetic fertilizers, and incentives such as procurement at pre-announced prices. The net result then was self-sufficiency in foodgrain output. The net result today is grain output many times as large as the country needs and a section of farmers hooked to producing unwanted grain and selling it off to the government at fancy prices, while enjoying subsidized fertilizer, subsidized power to pump free water and subsidized or free canal irrigation.

This form of agricultural support spread to other crops. Today, India can export sugar only on the strength of significant subsidies. Water-intensive sugarcane is grown on the arid soil of the Deccan, and in Tamil Nadu that wages an annual war with Karnataka for a share of waters from the Cauvery. The flood-prone plains of the Ganga in Bihar are probably some of the world’s best places to grow cane, but it is not grown there, because, minus law and order, sugar factories cannot come up near the growing regions, as cane must be crushed as soon as it is harvested, to avoid sharp dips in sugar recovery.

Subsidies and support prices have created strong vested interests in their continuance and a cropping pattern far removed from growing crops in the agro-climatic regions most suited for them. Investment in the essential infrastructure that would link farm produce to the retail market — motorable roads, refrigerated vans, reliable, stable power supply in rural areas that can run agro-processing plants or climate-controlled storage in rural areas — does not happen because the money that could have been spent on it is used up in subsidies.

The government introduced its notorious farm laws in the hope of ending the practice of open-ended procurement that encouraged the cultivation of unwanted grain, ruined the power sector, damaged the soil, diverted scarce resources towards subsidy and thwarted investment. Outraged grain farmers came out in determined protest. What Indian agriculture needs is crop diversification that draws in grain farmers to more lucrative crops such as fruit, vegetables, flower, cotton, lentils and oilseeds, grown in places optimal for the respective crop. Lentils and oilseeds are a heavy import burden on India’s balance of payments, even as India struggles to export costly sugar and rice, of which the country has unwanted stocks. Once such diversification has been achieved, farm law changes would be welcomed rather than opposed.

Gherkin shows the potential for a successful crop diversification strategy. The point is to turn potential into realized prosperity.

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