India has all the means to become an agricultural powerhouse in the world but we are currently harnessing only a fraction of our strength and letting the rest slip away
The current focus of public discourse on agriculture is on the marketing system in the context of the three contentious farm laws enacted last year. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ordered a temporary suspension of their implementation and appointed a committee of experts whose report has gone unanswered since March. The government’s offer to seek suggestions on specific changes to the law has fallen on deaf ears, and protests to outright repeal of the laws have now become distinctly political.
This emphasis on marketing has eclipsed attention to important issues of growing water deficit, soil erosion and environmental degradation – especially nitrogen or air and water pollution – caused by current agricultural practices. Here is a brief explanation of the issues and concerns.
In a pandemic-stricken world, the time-bound eradication of hunger and malnutrition by 2030 in an environmentally sustainable manner is an international priority and a commitment under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United States. United Nations. The Food Systems Summit is due to be convened shortly to review global preparedness. Measures are needed to ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all; shift to sustainable consumption patterns; stimulate positive production for nature; promote equitable livelihoods; and build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress.
India has offered to use its overflowing granaries to tackle extreme hunger, but India can do much more and be an agricultural powerhouse, but we are currently harnessing only a fraction of our strength. Here are some suggestions for achieving this mission.
In the mid-1960s, hit by consecutive droughts, India was a “ship-to-mouth” economy awaiting imports of PL480 wheat from the United States. Today, India is the largest exporter of rice and the second largest producer of wheat and rice, after China. Apart from oilseeds and pulses, the country is now self-sufficient in the production of food grains.
This feat was achieved by ushering in the “Green Revolution” in the 1960s. One of the major spinoffs of the Green Revolution was the increased use of chemical fertilizers, mainly urea for nitrogen and others to provide potassium and phosphorus.
Textbook science tells us that bacteria found in the roots of legumes (legumes) help in “nitrogen fixation,” the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen compounds that serve as fertilizer. These plants therefore naturally increase the nitrogen content of the soil. The traditional agricultural practice of “crop rotation” was to sow the legumes between other crops to restore the depleted nitrogen content of the soil.
The Green Revolution changed many of these practices. He boosted production with three major failures. First, its impact was limited to a few cereal crops – mainly wheat and rice – and to the water surplus areas of Punjab, Haryana and parts of the UP. There is no longer any surplus water and the water table has become very deep. In addition, newer varieties require chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and there is a risk of chemicals getting into the air and water.
Three crops (rice, wheat and sugar cane) capture 75 to 80 percent of irrigated water. The diversification of cultivation methods towards millets, legumes, oilseeds, horticulture is necessary for a more equitable distribution of water, the improvement of a sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture and, above all, the resolution of the problem of nutritional deficit. Too much grain and sugar cane at the expense of pulses, fruits and vegetables is not good for your health.
At a time when some misguided environmentalists have aligned themselves with misguided farmers by perpetuating the overproduction of cereals in an ecologically unsustainable manner, it is worth recalling the report published by United Nations agencies (FAO, IFAD, WHO, UNICEF, WFP) on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World on July 13, 2020.
The UN report estimated that if the trends of the last five years persist, the number of undernourished people will exceed 84 crore by 2030 when the goal is to reduce it to zero under the SDGs.
Then there is the issue of pollution caused by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Nitrogen pollution also has implications for global warming.
Farmers were initially impressed with a four to ten-fold increase in wheat and rice productivity. They continued to use more and more fertilizers, especially cheaper urea. The soil kept losing its natural health and became “addicted” to urea. As the efficiency of fertilizer use was declining, farmers used more fertilizer (than the minimum required) in the hope of increasing the yield. Scientists have found that crops typically only use 30% of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to fields; the rest seeps into the environment, damaging health and worsening climate change.
The “nitrogen use efficiency” of the global food system integrating crop and animal production systems is very low, barely 15%. This means that 85% of the nitrogenous chemicals used are lost to air, groundwater or surface runoff, threatening the quality of air, soil and freshwater, causing climate change and thus endangering ecosystems and human health (2013 Study).
Nitrous oxide is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas because it is more than 300 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Agriculture is responsible for around 70 percent of nitrous oxide emissions in India. Of this total, 77% comes from fertilizers, mainly urea, according to the Indian Nitrogen Assessment published in 2017.
Cereals consume more than 69% of nitrogen fertilizers in India and fertilizer consumption shows a continuous growth trend, with an annual increase of around 6% since 1970.
Concerned about the excessive use of urea and its detrimental effects on the environment, a major policy intervention has been the introduction of neem coated urea – the coating of Neem on urea granules means that urea does not dissolve easily in water and the soil receives additional natural insecticide.
This should help, but eventually we need to gradually return to chemical-free agriculture. Obviously, we cannot proceed like Sri Lanka which banned the import of chemical fertilizers in the face of a serious shortage of dollars with them. It affected food production and supply, resulting in the imposition of an emergency.
Chemical-free farming or organic farming or natural zero-budget farming have not yet taken off. Currently 38 lakh hectares of cultivable area is organically cultivated by 30 lakh farmers with export and domestic demand of Rs.7,000 crore and Rs.4,400 crore, respectively. The domestic market is growing by 17 percent and the projected demand of the organic food market is expected to exceed Rs. 87.1 crore by 2021 from Rs. 53.3 crore in 2016. The size of the product export market organic products increased by 42% in 2021 compared to last year and the volume of organic products exported from April 2020 to February 2021 was 819,250 MT with a value of 948 million dollars.
‘Sresta Natural Bioproducts’ is a sustainable livelihood business that has enabled 45,000 farmers to switch to organic farming across the country. The company has converted two lakh acres of land in 15 states. Over 200 products are sold in 10,000 stores and exported to 50 countries under the 24 Mantra brand. A “jaivik kheti” web portal actually connects farmers to consumers for better prices. These are encouraging steps but still small steps. Organic farming, seen as a fad of the rich and expensive, can only become a mass movement if organic produce is verifiable and affordable.
When will we see a “mahapanchayat” discussing these challenges in front of Indian agriculture?
(The author is a former Special Secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, GOI. The views expressed are personal.)