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

Dr KC Ravi | September 6, 2018


#farmer income   #farmers   #farming   #Organic agriculture   #MSP   #Indian Rice Research Institute  
Photo: Arun Kumar
Photo: Arun Kumar

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 water-logging, 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? 
 
Ravi is president, Public Affairs Forum of India. Views expressed are personal. 

(The article appears in September 15, 2018 edition)

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