Farm to fork: What's shrinking our food

The newly-released 'State of Indian Agriculture' report makes the right noises about the shortcomings- well almost
Thursday, July 12, 2012
Pesticide residues in food commodities is an important food safety issue. Source: GOI Monitor

An average Indian spends almost half of his/her total expenditure on food, while roughly half  of India’s work force is still engaged in agriculture for its livelihood. This is why it's a cause of concern that the sector is in trouble. Falling soil fertility, over exploitation of water resources, crop yields hitting a plateau, rising input cost, and wastage of food grain means that agriculture's contribution to the  overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country has fallen from about 30 per cent in 1990-91 to less than 15 per cent in 2011-12.

The fact that India is still home to the largest number of poor and malnourished people in the world makes it all the more important that higher priority is given to agriculture to ensure inclusive growth. A single point percentage growth in agriculture has been found to be at least two to three times more effective in reducing poverty than the same growth emanating from non-agriculture sectors. This is why, the 'State of Indian Agriculture 2011-12' report brought out by the Union Ministry of Agriculture assumes significance as it charts out performance of the sector, highlights loopholes in policy making and suggests remedies. Though along the way, it does lose logic and context, especially when talking about genetically-modified crops and seed industry, the document still remains a worthy ensemble of the issues related to the farm sector.  

Low investments, high subsidies

The report laments that in the last 20 years, the contribution of agriculture to GDP has halved even as more than half of Indian population is still dependent on farms for sustenance turning it into a precarious situation. It rightly points out that the expenditure on agricultural subsidies has crowded out public investment in agriculture research, irrigation, rural roads and power. In fact, fertilizer subsidy, the biggest of all these input subsidies, has led to an imbalanced use of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) thus contributing to deteriorating soil conditions. Consumption of nitrogenous (N), phosphatic (P), potassium (K) fertilizers has increased from 1.1 million tonnes in 1966-67, the year preceding the green revolution to 28.2 million tonnes in 2010-11, while the food grain production increased from 74 million tonnes in 1966-67 to 241.56 million tonnes in 2010-11.

Fertilizer subsidy has led to an imbalanced use of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) thus contributing to deteriorating soil conditions. Consumption of these fertilizers  increased from 1.1 million tonnes in 1966-67, the year preceding the green revolution to 28.2 million tonnes in 2010-11.

While per hectare consumption is 237.1 kg in Punjab and 225.7 kg in Andhra Pradesh, it is comparatively low in MP, Odisha, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and the North Eastern States. On the other hand, the farmland is increasingly getting fragmented with the proportion of marginal holdings (area less than 1 ha) rising from 61.6 per cent in 1995-96 to 64.8 per cent in 2005-06. This is followed by about 18 per cent small holdings (1-2 ha.), about 16 percent medium holdings (more than 2 to less than 10 ha.) and less than 1 per cent large holdings (10 ha. and above). However, it accepts the fact that small farms produce more per unit of land than large farms provided they have access to same inputs.

The yield levels in both wheat and rice crops were found to have stagnated since the growth in their productions were marginal during 2000-01 to 2010-11. All the major coarse cereals displayed a negative growth in area except for maize. Fruits and vegetables showed a higher growth in production and area but the biggest increase in the growth rates of yields in the two periods were in groundnut and cotton, both non-food crops.

The report gives the credit for this to introduction of Bt Cotton in 2002 not taking note that both government and social sector research studies have shown that in long term, Bt Cotton has not increased production. Mahabeej, the Maharashtra government's seed corporation, has undertaken a programme to increase the production of desi cotton seeds from 200 quintals this year to 1,500 quintals next year due to increase in demand. A large percentage of cotton farmers in Rajasthan have still not adopted the Bt variety because desi varieties are more resistant to drought besides being more remunerative.

Maharashtra's seed corporation will increase the production of desi cotton seeds due to increase in demand while a large percentage of cotton farmers in Rajasthan still use desi varieties because they are more resistant to drought besides being more remunerative

The production cost of Bt cotton is higher as it needs more water and fertilisers. However, the report goes a step further and claims that GM crops also contribute to conservation of biodiversity and more efficient use of external inputs for a more sustainable agriculture and environment, all of which have been belied by research in the field. 

Where's sustainability?

Notably, when talking about sustainable agriculture, the report does not stress much on organic farming  or techniques like the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) which help conserve water and reduce the use of chemical fertilizers while maintaining higher crop production. It does state that 90,000 demonstrations of SRI have been organised during the last five years but how much cultivated area has been brought under this technique is not known.

While export of organic food items including tea, spices, fruits and vegetables, has been extolled, there is no mention of extending this practice to main food crops; neither for exports nor for domestic consumption. Instead, it favours taking green revolution to the eastern parts despite accepting the fact that the practice has played havoc with the north western region. More rainfall, unexploited good quality groundwater, aquifers and vast resources of social capital are termed as major factors for “sustainable” production of foodgrains in the states of Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Eastern Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

The report favours taking green revolution to the eastern parts despite accepting the fact that the practice has played havoc with the north western region.

Seed quality is estimated to account for 20-25 per cent of productivity. However, the report, just following the National Seeds Policy 2002, favours greater role for the private sector in production and distribution of seeds to enhance replacement of farm-saved seeds by 'quality' seeds, as dictated by the World Trade Organization (WTO). The report says 10-30 per cent crop loss is due to various pests but per hectare consumption of pesticide in India is 381 g which is low as compared to the world average of 500 g with only 25-30 per cent cultivated area under pesticide cover. However, instead of being cheerful about it, the document blames fragmented land holdings, dependence on monsoons and insufficient awareness among farmers as the main reason for the 'low' consumption rate.

Also, it fails to point out that pesticides are indiscriminately used in Punjab and Haryana, the two states which provide a substantial share of wheat and rice to the country. While it terms  and claims that 21 laboratories functioning under various ministries analyse samples to check for the presence of pesticides in food, the findings of these tests have not been shared.

Water in plenty, efficiency scarce

It is estimated that by 2050, about 22 per cent of the geographic area and 17 per cent of the population will be under absolute water scarcity. The per capita availability of water which was about 1704 cubic metres in 2010 is projected to be 1235 cm in 2050. Irrigation remains the most dominant component in the overall investment in agriculture. In case of public investments in agriculture, more than 80 per cent is accounted for major and medium irrigation schemes.

Even in the case of private investments in agriculture, almost half is accounted for by irrigation (minor, primarily through groundwater, but also now increasingly drip etc.). The net sown area has remained around 141 million hectares during the last 40 years. The cropping intensity has, however, gone up from 118 per cent in 1970-71 to 138 per cent in 2008-09.

There are wide variations in irrigation coverage across states and across crops with Punjab having 98  per cent of cropped area under irrigation while Assam has just 4 per cent. Among crops, the major coarse cereals, pulses and most of the oilseeds are grown under rainfed conditions thus depending on monsoon for production as compared to rice which is not as nutritious but is still favoured in irrigated areas. The document points out that India currently has an overall irrigation potential of 140 million hectares, out of which only about 109 million ha has been created, and around 80 million ha utilised thus losing out substantial benefits due to poor management of resources. However, it still stresses on storage (dams), transmission (main canals) and retail distribution of water (distribution at the farmer level) as the solution.

Among crops, the major coarse cereals, pulses and most of the oilseeds are grown under rainfed conditions thus depending on monsoon for production as compared to rice which is not as nutritious but is still favoured in irrigated areas.

In about five decades of Independence, the major controls on management of water resources have changed hands from communities (tanks and small water structures) to government (major and medium irrigation projects) to the private domain (ground water). This has resulted in inefficient water use leading to environmental degradation via waterlogging and induced salinity. “The irrigation efficiency in the systems needs to be upgraded from the present level of 35 per cent to about 60 per cent in the surface water system and from 65 per cent to 75 per cent in the groundwater system. Even a rise of 5 per cent irrigation efficiency can increase the irrigation potential by 10-15 million ha. New micro-irrigation technologies including drip and trickle systems and micro-sprinklers are good options but cover only about 0.5 million hectare,” the document says.

In over five decades of Independence, the major controls on management of water resources have changed hands from communities (tanks and small water structures) to government (major and medium irrigation projects) to the private domain (ground water). This has resulted in inefficient water use and environmental degradation. 

Despite low coverage area, drip irrigation has proved successful in exhibiting high water productivity by saving irrigation water from 25 to 60 per cent in various orchard crops and vegetables with a 10 to 60 per cent increase in yield as compared to the conventional method of irrigation. It is one of the latest methods of irrigation which is becoming popular in areas with water scarcity and salt problems.

The report goes on to explain the river-interlinking plan claiming that about 141 Billion Cubic Metre (bcm) can be transferred through the peninsular links and 33 bcm through the non-peninsular links. However, the total additional water resources available (174 bcm) by this will be less than the combined water that can be made available (about 300 bcm) through water conservation, groundwater recharge and recycling. The Department of Agriculture & Cooperation has been implementing programmes such as the National Watershed Development Project for Rainfed Areas (NWDPRA), Soil Conservation in the Catchments of River Valley Project & Flood Prone River (RVP & FPR) and Watershed Development Project in Shifting Cultivation Areas (WDPSCA).

Till the end of third year of eleventh Plan, about 20.81 million ha area had been developed under these programmes. However, a study on “Comprehensive Assessment of Watersheds programmes in India” found that most of the watershed programmes were not sensitive to the needs of small and marginal farmers, women and landless labourers and they were left out of the watershed-related decision-making process.

We have soiled the soil

During the last 40 years (1970 to 2009) the net sown area has remained, by and large, constant at 141 million ha whereas area under non-agricultural uses has increased from 16 million ha to 26 million ha, while the area under barren and unculturable land has come down from 28 million to 17 million ha. The major threats to soil quality come from loss of organic carbon, erosion, nutrient imbalance, compaction, salinisation, water-logging, decline in soil biodiversity, urbanisation, contamination with heavy metals and pesticides and from an adverse impact of climate change.

The organic carbon content of Indian soils is very low on account of removal of the crop residues, low and imbalanced nutrient use and erosion. Most of the plant biomass is removed from the field to be used as forage, fuel or building material and stubbles are burnt to hasten land preparation for next crop. An estimated 29.4 million ha of Indian soil is experiencing a decline in fertility which is likely to increase in future. Nutrient imbalance and micronutrient deficiency is serious in our soils. About 3.1 million ha of agricultural land is water logged while another 4.1 million ha is affected by salinity. Non-judicious use of pesticides, dumping of municipal solid and industrial wastes containing large amounts of heavy metals and toxic substances affect soil quality as also activities of the biological system in the soil.

An estimated 29.4 million ha of Indian soil is experiencing a decline in fertility which is likely to increase in future. About 3.1 million ha of agricultural land is water logged while another 4.1 million ha is affected by salinity.

The report recommends application of gypsum as soil or water amendment along with farm yard manure to deal with the adverse effects of saline soil and allow the growing of rice and wheat in these areas. Cultivation of salt-tolerant rice and wheat varieties can help deal with the issue without compromising the crop yield. An inadequate and imbalanced nutrient use coupled with neglect of organic manures has resulted in multi-nutrient deficiencies in Indian soils. These deficiencies are becoming more critical for sulphur, zinc and boron. As the nutrient additions do not keep pace with nutrient removal by the crops, the fertility status of Indian soils has been declining fast under intensive agriculture and are now showing signs of fatigue, especially in the Indo-Gangetic plain. The soils in India possesses having a net negative balance of about 8-10 million tonnes of NPK at the country level.

The potassium (P) is the most mined nutrient from soils with the rate of its removal being 7 metric tonne and in proportion to an addition of only one metric tonne. Sulphur deficiencies are also showing up in all parts of the country being more rampant in the southern region. The deficiencies could be assumed to be occurring in 40-45 per cent of districts covering about 60 million ha of net sown area. The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences has estimated (2009) that for meeting the food needs of the country by 2025, India may have to increase its plant nutrient supply to over 45 million tonnes with 35 million tonnes coming from chemical fertilizer sources and the remaining 10 million tonnes from organic sources. According to ICAR estimates, there is a big gap of 10 million tonnes of nutrients annually added and drained from the soil by crop removal and erosion.

The national soil health and fertility programme introduced by the Department of Agriculture & Cooperation to deal with this problem promotes a soil test based balanced and  judicious use of chemical fertilizers in conjunction with organic manures. In 2010-11, there were 1,049 soil testing laboratories operating in the country with a soil analysing capacity of 106 lakh soil samples per annum. A soil Health Card is provided to farmers which contains details of soil fertility, level of macro and micro nutrients and the problems related to soil. This information allows the farmer to adopt agricultural practices accordingly, including appropriate nutrient mix. State governments had issued 408 lakh soil health cards to the farmers till October, 2011.

Man, money and market deficit

Labour accounts for more than 40 per cent of the total variable cost of production in most cases. Therefore, availability of labour to work in agriculture is crucial in sustaining agricultural production. In recent years there is a perceptible change in this trend due to rapid economic growth and adoption of policies for employment generation including promotion of self employment opportunities. Major policy measures influencing the wage increase are Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) and the Minimum Wages Act.

There is a steady increase of agricultural wages in all major states of India in recent years. The annual average wage in Punjab increased by 22.2 per cent in 2009 and 20.3 per cent in 2010. However, MREGS has also reduced the availability of labour for agricultural operations and increased the cost of cultivation.

Institutional credit to agriculture has increased from 2.56 per cent in 1970–1971 to 32.21 percent in 2010-11. However, despite this expansion, small farmers are still going to informal lenders since the current system suffers from non-farmer friendly practices, delays in credit delivery and collateral problems. Even within states, there are sharp differences in credit flow to developed regions, regions with greater access to physical infrastructure and regions closer to urban centres as compared to under-developed districts or regions. Agricultural insurance is another concept that has not made much headway in India as yet.

Small farmers are still going to informal lenders since the current system suffers from non-farmer friendly practices, delays in credit delivery and collateral problems.

The coverage in terms of area, number of farmers and value of agricultural output is very small and most of the schemes are yet to prove their viability. During 2010-11, the Crop Insurance Schemes covered about 25 per cent farmers and crop area in the country. However, there was a heavy regional and crop bias in its coverage. Since the beginning of the scheme in 1999, till the rabi season of 2010-11, 176 million farmers were extended insurance cover. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha, Gujarat and Karnataka accounted for 76 per cent of the total insurance claims, and 80 per cent of insured area.

The increasing population has brought down the per capita net availability of food grains from 510 grams per day in 1991 to 444 grams per day in 2009. Only five states including Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra, and Haryana have more than 60 per cent of the total capacity of godowns sanctioned in the country while Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Gujarat are picking up. Lack of storage capacity is what is resulting in rotting of the surplus grain which could have been made available to the needy. The report recommends direct linking of farmers to the market and creation of scientific storage capacity with allied facilities in rural areas and involvement of private sector to speed up things. Gramin Bhandaran Yojna, a government scheme to this end launched in 2011 has sanctioned more than 24,000 such godowns since its inception.

Read the full report

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