A great leap forward for agriculture

Dr. Bhavarlal Jain
Source: 5th June 2014, thehindubusinessline

A set of technologies that deals with production and marketing constraints can work wonders
Indian agriculture faces herculean challenges today; yet, the near– and the medium–term outlook on agriculture and agri–businesses seem bright.
Growing urbanisation and changing food habits, malnutrition plus declining areas under foodgrain pose a big threat to food security.
Agriculture and food production are strongly influenced by international trade, credit availability, development co–operation, climate change and environmental degradation, as well as growing population, ever–increasing income disparity and rising social tensions (it has been found that a 10 per cent increase in the price of cereals reduces the already low consumption by the poor).
Ultra intensive agricultural practices, uncontrolled use of chemical fertilisers and insecticides, unmetered flow of irrigation water, cheap electricity and almost free water have impressively increased agricultural productivity in the past.
Nevertheless, these practices have are environmentally abusive. The water tables in some areas have fallen to dangerously low levels. Perverse cropping patterns have added to these problems. Soil salinity and fertility are under stress. Large and small dams have created islands of prosperity.
Typically, only rich farmers and in some parts of the country, middle farmers are able to produce a surplus and benefit from higher food prices which actually hurt the poor, dry land farmers and landless peasants.
Lack of rainwater harvesting has prevented us from bringing additional undulated, non–productive but cultivable wastelands under cultivation. Likewise, constantly diminishing forest areas lead to rise in temperatures, greater soil erosion, erratic rainfall and reduced groundwater conservation.
This further leads to stagnating or decreasing productivity of falling land resources and employment opportunities in the farm sector.
The low capital formation and disconnect of the farmers with functioning markets has made farming the profession of last resort. Large–scale migration to the cities and neglect of dry land farming has resulted in farmer suicides.
Rising to the occasion
Yet, farmers and agriculture have time and again propped up India’s flagging industrial output and the economy. The way ahead appears to be interventions through biotechnology, microbiology, nano technology and electronic systems of information and communication. Integrated irrigation solutions will find pride of place in this basket of technologies.
The introduction of biotechnology in agriculture lags behind that of the pharma sector. The controversy regarding its liberal use for food production will restrict its application.
However, using hybrid seeds and bringing about improvement in plant material through cloning and micro propagation can be a viable proposition for obtaining higher agri yield. Keeping aside the controversy around genetically modified products, we may soon discover that epigenetics will gain ground faster.
Microbiology will increasingly add value to agriculture. The use of organic substances and beneficial organisms by themselves has enormous potential for increasing agricultural yields. Similarly, employing nanotechnology for production and application of fertilisers is also promising.
The use of electronics will allow the trees and plants to talk and ask for what they need.
A given tree may need more nitrogen, while others in the second row of the orchard may ask for more phosphorus. The leaves of some plants may be thirsty and ask for more irrigation and those that are fully quenched would want the irrigation to stop. All these functions are very important for optimisation of yields. This will be feasible only if we harness the full potential of communication technologies. This will help equip us with better managerial skills and link farmers to markets.
Water, a challenge
The management of water resources is another challenge. Integrated irrigation solutions that use forward looking technologies such as precision farming and micro irrigation will reduce the water requirement for agriculture and also make it sustainable and profitable.
However, we can avert the conflict between agriculture, industry and domestic usage only if we imbibe water management technologies. We have to remember that what is not measured can never be managed. The right pricing for use of water and energy in every field will assume over–arching importance.
Likewise, the adoption of capital intensive controlled farming systems (hydroponics, aeroponics, hi speed nurseries, and vertical farming in the green house) will have to be encouraged at least around urban centres.
Controlled agriculture will enhance output and speed up availability of disease–free planting material. Scarcity of labour/farmhands and increasing wages will push us towards mechanisation of every possible farm operation.
Engagement with such technologies, mechanised farm operations, and newer and efficient water management methods will attract the coming generations towards agri–businesses. These technologies and practices will transform our farms into knowledge hubs. Once that happens we will be taken closer to our dream of a hunger–free world.
Government role
However, all this can happen only if the Government makes its policies regarding farm prices and their movement farmer–friendly. It should also review rules, restrictions and regulations pertaining to agricultural commodities and make them more predictable. The Government should attract private capital and create a promising environment for entrepreneurship.
Agriculture is the largest private sector enterprise in the country. It can meet or exceed our expectations only if institutional structures and support in terms of technology, pricing policy framework and resource flows from non–agricultural sectors are adequate.
Dry land, hilly and marginal areas have received relatively less attention. Institutional reform of markets, empowerment of small farmers to leverage their assets for strategic partnerships with corporates, new technologies, market linkages and the establishment of farmer groups and building of the support bases for emerging Indian agriculture are all the need of the hour.
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