Agricultural growth has shown signs of stagnation of late. Some of the recent developments do not augur well for the sector and unless corrective measures are initiated, it could damage India’s long-term growth prospects.

According to government figures, the growth rate in the production of principal crops has been a mere 2.91 per cent between 1994-95 and 2010-11. After subsequent two years of severe drought, the figures are even worse. In 2014-15, India registered a negative foodgrain output growth while in 2015-16 it registered a zero output growth, way below the growth of the population. With a declining rate in agriculture output growth, and the consequent impact on rural incomes, the picture of our food security situation is grim.

Big worry

What has been more worrying is that although we are near the top as producers of agricultural products including pulses, grains and oilseeds, productivity levels are way below the potential. Add to this the rising agriculture import burden. In January this year, India for the first time in 16 years imported corn. In early June this year, the Government also announced its intentions to import 6.5 lakh tonnes of pulses.

In fact, India has been the largest importer of edible oil for many years; our import bill last year was over ₹65,000 crore. If the Solvent Extractors’ Association is to be believed, India could also be looking to import huge quantities of oil-meals used as livestock feed, as early as next year, given the huge fall in production of oilseeds. India, used to be a net exporter of oil-meals even till last year.

This adds a huge burden on the economy. The economic survey of 2014-15 says that between 2008-09 and 2013-14, India’s agricultural imports as a percentage of GDP increased from 4.0 per cent to 5.5 per cent. With new records being created this year, that figure will surely be higher. Technology can play a major role in addressing problems of low productivity, thereby effectively obviating the need to import these essentials.

Technology matters

Given that we are a large agrarian economy, the crisis has been aggravated by the challenges posed by climate change and urbanisation. Putting barriers on modern and innovative technology in such a situation will be self-destructive because technology is a potent option in this situation.

We have, however, seen in recent months, that there are needless hurdles in the path of modern agricultural technologies. The Cotton Seed Price Control Order (CSPCO) issued by last December effectively mandates that the Government would fix the prices of Bt cotton seeds in India. It even provides for the Government to fix the trait fee, a form of royalty paid to the technology provider. Such interventions by the Government go against the stated policy of promoting research and innovation in this sector. The argument that price control is necessitated by the unaffordable prices for Bt cotton seed because of a “monopoly” on the technology is disingenuous.

The present situation has been largely created by a regulatory system that after the introduction of the first two versions of Bt cotton, has been bulldozed by anti-technology activists to impose needless and onerous conditions that have stifled competitive efforts, be it from the public sector or from other private companies, in the commercialisation of new technologies. The field testing of GM technologies has virtually come to a halt. The biggest barrier to the introduction of new GM technologies is not the technical capability of the purveyor, but the unreasonable barriers in getting regulatory approval. The cost and time, apart from the uncertainty factor, involved in bringing such technologies to the market has risen so much that many public research institutions and private companies that have developed such technologies are forced to put them on the back-burner.

The ideal way to get over this impasse is to reform the regulatory system; make it science-based and insulated from being swayed by misleading propaganda. If there are more entrants into the technology space, the cost as a fraction of the value provided to the farmer will certainly come down.

Promote research

With the tremendous success of Bt cotton technology it was assumed that it would become easier to develop and commercialise such technologies in other crops leading to better productivity increases and more efficient use of inputs; the latter being very important in the context of sustainability. However, the policy impasse and the consequent confusion in the last several years have completely belied such hopes. It is high time some bold steps are taken to reverse this self-destructive trend.

While confronting such negative influences it is important to take cognisance of the march of crop science around the world. Unless we hasten to reinvigorate agricultural research and innovation, we will be left further behind and our dreams of being among the top nations of the world in the next few years will remain just that.

Today, techniques are available to make precise changes in the genetics of crops, sometimes termed as ‘genome editing’, that can potentially address several intractable problems faced by our agricultural sector. There should, therefore, be a sense of urgency in correcting the present situation.

By stifling new technology, we are not only depriving farmers of opportunities to improve their economic condition but also endangering our food and nutritional security. The Government’s pledge to double farmer incomes in the next four years cannot be redeemed without resorting to technological options.

The writer is an independent agriculture expert and founder and former MD of Metahelix Life Sciences Limited