The challenge of feeding the next billion

Vishwanath Kulkarni | Updated on January 27, 2019

Stagnation in yields, rising costs, poor prices and land degradation have rendered farming unviable

India has much to boast about in the field of agriculture, but there are dark clouds looming ahead. Most crucially, the country has largely achieved self-sufficiency in the production of foodgrains, aided by an increase in yields and area farmed. But climate change and shrinking resources — mainly land and water — will pose a huge challenge to feeding our rising population.

And this is happening even as farming is becoming an unviable proposition for the average small Indian farmer, who accounts for over two-thirds of the country’s land holdings. That’s because of a host of factors, including stagnation in yields, rising input costs, poor prices and degradation of land due to excess use of inputs.

Erratic monsoons

Changing climatic patterns are the greatest worry. The monsoons have become increasingly erratic and they are still the country’s agricultural lifeline. More than half of all cultivated land is still dependent on monsoons. But rainfall patterns are becoming more unpredictable, with intense rainfall in a fewer number of days and an uneven spread, putting farmers in a fix. In fact, the average number of days with low rainfall of less than 5 cm per day, considered beneficial for farmers, is on the decline and regions such as Peninsular India and the North-East are particularly vulnerable.

In the wake of liberalisation, the country’s farm sector has witnessed several positives — an increase in the production of foodgrains, horticulture produce such as fruits and vegetables and even milk. Today, the country ranks first in milk production globally and is second in fruits and vegetables.

Besides that, it is also the second-largest producer of rice and wheat after China. Productions of foodgrains have been breaking new records every year as the Centre has expanded the Green Revolution to the eastern States.

Also, the output of horticultural produce has surpassed foodgrains production since 2012-13 as many farmers have switched to growing fruits and vegetables.

The weak link

But the dark side to this is that while self-sufficiency has largely been achieved in cereals such as rice and wheat, and pulses, fruits and vegetables among others, the country still lacks the ability to manage the surpluses because post-harvest and food processing facilities are still weak links in the entire value chain. Though the value addition in food products has picked up, it is yet to make a big impact. This is evident from the fact that price crashes triggered by gluts in production have become a regular feature across key growing areas in recent years.

The rising output of pulses, vegetables and milk has exposed the inadequacies of the storage and marketing network. Farmers’ protests over abysmally low prices have been a common feature in the past two or more years. However, the policy response has been to expand e-NAM mandis in an effort to introduce transparency in price discovery.

Also, a steady increase in food output has helped India increase its share in the global export market over the past two decades. According to FAO data, India has managed to almost double its share in global food exports since 2000. India which ranked as the 12th-largest exporter, accounting for 1.2 per cent of the global exports in 2000 in value terms, has moved up the ladder over the past one-and-a-half decades.

In 2016, India was the 10th-largest food exporter, accounting for 2.2 per cent of global exports. A surge in shipments of products such as rice, buffalo meat, fruits and vegetables, cotton, tea and coffee, among other products, has helped the country expand its global export footprint.

Simultaneously, however, import volumes of food products led by edible oils and pulses - have registered an increase in sync with the growth in exports. The surging imports have been necessitated by growing demand. Rising income levels are fuelling the demand for these food imports.

India which ranked as the 17th-largest importer of food products in 2000, accounting for 0.7 per cent share of global imports, has almost trebled its purchases. In 2016, India was the eighth-largest importer, accounting for 1.9 per cent of global imports.

India’s imports are likely to go up as climate change further impacts farm production. An FAO report recently projected that India is among countries in South Asia where the impact of climate change on agriculture will be more pronounced, resulting in output decline by 2.6 per cent on a drop in yields projected at 5 per cent. As a result, the country’s import dependency is likely to go up to feed the growing population.

Even as the threat of climate change looms large, the overuse of ground water for agriculture is also posing a big risk. The awareness about judicious use of water is yet to catch on, and the varieties resistant to drought are yet to make a big impact.

However, a section of farmers is moving away from input-intensive agriculture towards zero-based natural farming. The resurgence of millets, although it still has a long way to go, could provide some relief to farmers in dryland regions.

GM challenges

While the proponents of genetically modified crops see the use of technology as a solution to boost yields, increase output and address food and nutritional security, the uncertainty over commercialisation of such technology in the Indian context is seen as a challenge. The use of Bt cotton seeds did help India emerge as the largest cotton producer, although the technology has been vulnerable to pink bollworms in recent years.

A second Green Revolution will have to be based on new technologies, and new incentives, and spread across new geographies. GM technologies have yet to be approved in the case of food crops such as mustard and brinjal, with no end in sight to the controversy over their supposed benefits and dangers. The regulatory process, too, has come under scrutiny.

The most significant policy development in recent years, as a response to the farmers’ agitation over prices, pertains to the emphasis on income support schemes — a tacit acceptance that the minimum support price (MSP) model cannot perform the function of raising farmers’ incomes across the board. Hence, the Telangana government has unveiled an income support scheme, Rythu Bandhu, which supports farmers to the extent of ₹8,000 an acre.

A similar scheme has been unveiled by the Odisha government. A section of policymakers is of the view that such schemes are the way to go, as they are unlikely to run afoul of the WTO.

India’s dairy sector tariffs too have come under pressure in trade talks such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with Australia and New Zealand because both countries are keen to break into the Indian dairy market.

While the road ahead for the Indian farm sector is fraught with multiple challenges, there is a need for a concerted and holistic approach – mainly through policies that address economic and ecological challenges and ensure food security in the years ahead.

Published on January 27, 2019

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