Or­ganic or not, agri­cul­ture should be sus­tain­able

There is no sin­gle bul­let when it comes to the chal­lenge of dou­bling farm­ers’ in­come and feed­ing our bil­lion-plus pop­u­la­tion

Governance Now - - CONTENTS - Dr KC Ravi

The min­istry of agri­cul­ture and farm­ers wel­fare had re­cently or­gan­ised a sem­i­nar, ‘agri­cul­ture 2022: dou­bling Farm­ers in­come’, where over 300 top minds from the gov­ern­ment, academia, in­dus­try, ngos and most im­por­tantly rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the farm­ing com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pated for two days to chalk out a roadmap. The high­light of the con­fer­ence was var­i­ous groups look­ing at as­pects like pol­icy, in­puts, value chain, au­to­ma­tion, credit, in­sur­ance and sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture and pre­sent­ing a way for­ward to the prime min­is­ter of in­dia. While such brain­storm­ing was the first of its kind, the mind­set of at least my group on sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture left much to be de­sired.

The de­lib­er­a­tions were such as though or­ganic agri­cul­ture and “zero bud­get nat­u­ral farm­ing” were the only panacea to erad­i­cate all the ills af­flict­ing our agri­cul­ture and the way to dou­ble farm­ers’ in­come. it was as though an al­most apolo­getic or­ganic move­ment was un­der­way when sud­denly it had dawned that earth had been sub­jected to the most harm­ful chem­i­cals and the only way to change things was to adopt all the nat­u­ral means avail­able to heal.

This re­minded me fun­nily of the fa­mous Hindi say­ing that af­ter eat­ing a hun­dred rats, the cat went on a pil­grim­age! The farm­ers who even re­motely spoke about how new tech­niques like tis­sue cul­ture had ben­e­fit­ted their ba­nana plan­ta­tions in the group were si­lenced by the emo­tional tirade of the ma­jor­ity so much so that the achieve­ments of the whole sci­en­tific com­mu­nity dur­ing the green rev­o­lu­tion, leave alone ac­knowl­edged, were ridiculed to have mis­led the farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties over the decades.

While there is no sin­gle sil­ver bul­let to the mul­ti­far­i­ous prob­lems that faces our agri­cul­ture and we need all kinds of sus­tain­able tech­nolo­gies/so­lu­tions in­clud­ing or­ganic farm­ing in our vast coun­try to make farm­ers prof­itable, the de­lib­er­a­tions would have been well served if as­pects of how to bring

sus­tain­able prac­tices into the var­i­ous as­pects of agri­cul­ture with tan­gi­ble tar­gets to re­duce the en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print were also given equal im­por­tance in­stead of a to­tal bias to­wards or­ganic agri­cul­ture.

if the ex­pe­ri­ence of the state of Sikkim, which mooted the idea of or­ganic farm­ing in 2003 and has been de­clared as a fully or­ganic state in 2016, is any­thing to go by, then its per­for­mance has been far from sat­is­fac­tory. it is es­ti­mated that there has been a dra­matic de­cline in pro­duc­tion of food grains in the state af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion of or­ganic farm­ing. The last 20 years have seen a sharp de­cline of 60 per­cent in the pro­duc­tion of sta­ple food grains in Sikkim. The state had to de­pend on oth­ers for its re­quire­ment of rice and wheat. The state is able to pro­duce only 20 per­cent of its rice re­quire­ment of over one lakh tonnes. Sikkim pro­duces only 5,800 tonnes of pulses against a re­quire­ment of 11,700 tonnes. Wheat pro­duc­tion has seen a sharp de­cline from 21,600 tonnes in the 1990s to 350 tonnes. The pro­duc­tion of other crops has also seen a de­cline, ac­cord­ing to pub­lished gov­ern­ment data.

one does not need a crys­tal ball to pre­dict where in­dia is headed. By 2050 global pop­u­la­tion will rise to 9 bil­lion, out of which 1.7 bil­lion will be in in­dia alone. To­tal calo­rie re­quire­ment will go up from 2,495 to 3,000 and food grain pro­duc­tion would need to in­crease by 5.5 mt an­nu­ally. de­mand for high-value food com­modi­ties will go up by over 100 per­cent due to mi­gra­tion of peo­ple into cities, in­creased wealth and shift to­wards di­ets rich in pro­tein. around 49 per­cent of our pop­u­la­tion is in­volved in agri­cul­ture, yet it con­trib­utes around only 16 per­cent to in­dia’s gdp, with the chal­lenge of en­sur­ing food se­cu­rity to 1.3 bil­lion pop­u­la­tion. growth in agri­cul­ture at a min­i­mum of four per­cent is a pre­req­ui­site to in­dia clock­ing con­sis­tent at eight per­cent and above gdp to make a dent on poverty.

need­less to say, there are grow­ing re­source con­straints by way of land, water and labour. There is pres­sure to grow more from less – from the 46 per­cent of to­tal arable land in use. most of the re­main­ing arable land has se­ri­ous soil and ter­rain con­straints. There is also the prob­lem of the de­creas­ing size of land­hold­ings, cou­pled with some of the low­est av­er­age farm pro­duc­tiv­ity in the world. Eighty-six per­cent of our grow­ers are small hold­ers hav­ing less than two hectares of land and cul­ti­vate 44 per­cent of the land and con­trib­ute 50 per­cent to farm out­put. The av­er­age land­hold­ing de­clined from 2.30 ha in the 1970s to 1.32 ha in 2000-01 and is ex­pected to fur­ther de­cline to a mere 0.68 ha in 2020 and 0.32 ha in 2030.

The degra­da­tion of the pro­duc­tion en­vi­ron­ment will also pose a se­ri­ous con­straint. Soil ero­sion has de­graded 120.72 mil­lion ha of land in in­dia, 8.4 mil­lion ha has soil salin­ity and wa­ter­log­ging, water-ta­ble and water qual­ity is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing, most ar­eas are ex­hibit­ing prob­lems owing to over-ex­ploita­tion and mis­man­age­ment of soil and water re­sources.

agri­cul­ture is in­dia’s largest user of water with more than 40 per­cent lost to in­ef­fi­cient prac­tices. nearly 50 per­cent agri­cul­tural land is rain-fed, with the chal­lenge of util­is­ing 2,000 litres to grow food for one per­son a day.

Farm de­mo­graph­ics show a rather dra­matic pic­ture. ag­ing pop­u­la­tion and mi­gra­tion to cities is in­flu­enc­ing labour avail­abil­ity. High-tech ma­chines, com­plex pro­duc­tion pro­cesses and strict pro­duc­tion reg­u­la­tions will re­quire ad­e­quate skilled labour, which is be­com­ing scarce.

The scourge of cli­mate change is also go­ing to af­fect agri­cul­ture in a ma­jor way. The in­dian rice re­search in­sti­tute (irri) has forecast that there would be 20 per­cent re­duc­tion in rice yield with ev­ery one de­gree rise of tem­per­a­ture. in­dia’s food pro­duc­tion would be hit with yields fall­ing up to 30 per­cent with in­creased rain in some re­gions, de­cline in oth­ers and fall in win­ter rain ham­per­ing win­ter wheat and mus­tard. changes in tem­per­a­ture and rain will im­pact 65 per­cent of cropped area and more than 350 mil­lion peo­ple de­pen­dent on rain-fed agri­cul­ture.

it is thus a very scary sce­nario and there is no one so­lu­tion that can tackle all of these prob­lems. Sci­en­tific agri­cul­ture has pro­vided us with seeds that im­prove yields with early emer­gence, vig­or­ous growth and qual­ity in­put, drought-tol­er­ant va­ri­eties and rice hy­brids with re­duced har­vest­ing cy­cle, veg­etable hy­brids that grow through the year, crop pro­tec­tion prod­ucts that pro­tect yields by con­trol­ling in­sects, weeds, dis­eases be­sides re­duced tillage. Seed care tech­nol­ogy that pro­tects vul­ner­a­ble seeds and seedlings from pests, dis­eases, bet­ter agron­omy like Hi-pop, mulching, pro­tected cul­ti­va­tion help­ing in­crease yield. drip ir­ri­ga­tion has en­sured ef­fec­tive water and fer­tiliser sup­ply. and there is con­tin­u­ing break­through re­search in biotech, marker and crispr tech­nolo­gies, in­clud­ing ac­cel­er­ated adop­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence hap­pen­ing.

is it there­fore pru­dent to dis­re­gard all these and get swayed by the move­ment that the only way to bring back the car­bon in the soil, pro­tect the micro­organ­isms and in­crease yields in a sus­tain­able way is through or­ganic means and nat­u­ral pro­cesses? def­i­nitely, there is a place for these tech­niques and amal­ga­ma­tion of these is prob­a­bly the mid­dle path that will not only en­sure enough food, but more im­por­tantly, en­hance farmer in­come.

i would like to con­clude with a sim­ple ques­tion. Even if we for a mo­ment ac­cept that or­ganic agri­cul­ture does man­age to over­come all the chal­lenges and also pro­duce the amount of food re­quired for the fu­ture pop­u­la­tion, are the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion go­ing to be able to af­ford them?

Agri­cul­ture is In­dia’s largest user of water with more than 40 per­cent lost to in­ef­fi­cient prac­tices. Nearly 50 per­cent agri­cul­tural land is rain­fed with the chal­lenge of util­is­ing 2,000 litres to grow food for one per­son a day.

Arun ku­mar

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