Opinion

Limits to pushing mono-cropping of cereals

G Chandashekhar | Updated on August 26, 2020

Crop rotation and diversity should be promoted to mitigate the environmental effects of growing just rice and wheat

With the implicit assumption that the cyclical nature of sugarcane harvest has been decisively broken, the NITI Aayog recently came up with a suggestion that the area under cane should be reduced by 300,000 hectares so that consistent annual surpluses in sugar as also the price and other impacts on the sector as a whole can be minimised.

Whether there is adequate ‘political will’ to actually get down to implementing the suggestion is of course debatable. Be that as it may, fine cereals rice and wheat deserve far greater attention than sugar.

India is the world’s second largest producer of both rice and wheat. Cultivated on 45 million hectares in kharif and rabi seasons, rice production has consistently risen over the years from 104.4 million tonnes (mt) in 2015-16 to 117.9 mt in 2019-20. Wheat, a rabi crop, is planted on around 30 million hectares and its harvest stood at 107.2 mt in 2019-20, up from 92.3 mt five years ago.

Annual hikes in the minimum support price combined with the system of open-ended procurement through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) have contributed not only to increase in harvest size but also burgeoning public stocks of the two fine cereals. The FCI often ends up buying 30-40 per cent of the harvest. It is of course a consolation that India exports annually about 10 mt of rice.

Without doubt, overflowing granaries create a sense of comfort and security in a country that is home to over 300 million poor people. It feels good to nurse large stocks of foodgrains. But such a feeling comes at an enormous cost to the exchequer and the environment alike.

Virtually unlimited procurement of rice and wheat at annually rising procurement prices and humongous carrying costs (warehouse rent, interest charges, handling cost and loss due to damage and quality deterioration, to name a few) on the one hand, and distribution of the fine cereals through government-funded welfare programmes at highly subsidised rates (as much as 90 per cent) on the other, will give a sense of the enormity of cost to the exchequer. While welfare programmes per se are critical for meeting the food needs of poor people, for how long can this country afford to continue in this fashion deserves to be pondered over. If financial costs are one part, there is an even bigger cost staring at us and that’s the environmental cost. Grain mono-cropping — cultivation of rice and wheat in an unbroken chain season after season — in major growing States such as Punjab and Haryana over the last 20-30 years is inflicting enormous invisible costs.

In the absence of scientific crop rotation, soil health has deteriorated. Encouraged by free power supply, reckless drawing of groundwater for irrigation has resulted in the water table going down to alarmingly low levels. If anything, an environmental disaster is waiting to happen in the country’s bread-basket — the north-western States. We cannot afford such a disaster.

Mono-cropping

The practice of grain mono-cropping needs to change. Crop rotation should be enforced. Ideally, legumes should be cultivated to give a break to grain mono-cropping. It is not that policy-makers are unaware of the gravity of the situation. But successive governments at the Centre and in the States have been indifferent to crop rotation in Punjab and Haryana.

Without doubt, we need rice and wheat for our food security; but there are ways to ensure food security without damaging the environment. In regions of grain mono-cropping, crop rotation must be mandated. If not, procurement of rice and wheat in such regions should be limited to the minimum.

A carrot-and-stick policy alone will work. Growers who practice crop rotation should be incentivised with assured purchase by the government. MSP hikes for rice and wheat can be moderated. In its recommendation to the government, the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices should take into account the environmental cost associated with grain mono-cropping.

At the same time, there is a lurking danger that needs to be recognised. Indian wheat is at the limit of heat tolerance. Any unusual rise in day temperature during growing season can hurt wheat yields. Therefore, over-dependence on the north-western region for wheat cultivation and procurement should gradually give way to promotion of the fine cereal in other States by building robust procurement infrastructure.

If a certain political will is necessary for reduction of 300,000 ha of sugarcane cultivation, a far stronger political will alone can bring progressive changes to fine cereals cultivation to ensure reduction in financial and environmental costs from a long-term perspective.

The writer is a policy commentator and agribusiness specialist

Published on August 25, 2020

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