Saturday, 22 August 2015

Indian Agriculture: Where Are We Headed?

Arpita Bhattacharjya
Food Policy Blogger at Thought+Food
Washington DC
@greenfork on twitter
Editorial Handling: Rabish Chandra, Scientific Curator cum Moderator, Indian Botanists


As long as I can remember, Indian Agriculture has been beset with problems. The Green Revolution was a significant change and a huge step for a country struggling to prevent famine but those productivity gains did not spread through the sector. Indeed, on my summer holiday trips, as the train would move away from the lush fields of Haryana and Punjab and towards the east, the difference in the levels of prosperity would be evident through the windows. In the years that have passed what has changed? It would seem, not much. As I participate in social media debates on the food system today, I often have to respond to the "Indian farmer suicides" issue and this prompted me to look further at the state of Indian Agriculture today.

Indian Agriculture today: the numbers

I learned that according to the National Sample Survey Office Report, 58 percent of the total population of India, about 90.2 million households, are in the agricultural sector. The observed path in most growing economies is for the number of households in the agricultural sector to fall. By that standard, this is a huge proportion and clearly, the health and vitality of this sector would have implications for the entire Indian economy and its ability to grow.

More than half the agricultural households are in debt, and 40 percent of these households are in debt to informal/non-institutional sources such as money lenders. Of the total debt, the banks and cooperative societies' share was about 60 per cent and the rest was the share of the informal sector. Farm households’ reliance on crop insurance is limited because of lack of awareness. Hampered by lack of access to credit on reasonable terms and constrained by the weather, the condition of the Indian farmer appears precarious.

The Farming Variables

For a farmer to introduce improvements, fragmented and small landholdings, threat of acquisition on unfair terms, and quality of the land that he/she owns are deterrents. The news is full of reports of murky land dealings where money and muscle power are the dominant factors, marginalizing the small landholder. Add to that the astonishing fact that the last time land surveys were conducted was during the British era. Why would a farmer invest in land over which his ownership is not secure? Lack of investment means low productivity and low income.

The Indian farmer continues to rely on the monsoons for his crop to prosper. Irrigation facilities fall short of requirements and access to pumps or drip irrigation is expensive. What is the option for rain dependent farmers’ farms facing groundwater depletion and hotter temperatures?

Climate Change
Recent spikes in the price of pulses was attributed to unseasonal rain and hail. This meant India had to rely on imports and the vendor countries were able to charge a premium which is reflected in the higher prices in the market. As we feel the increasing impact of climate disruptions, the situation will only get worse. How is Indian Agriculture going to cope with this?

Post-Harvest Loss
There is a sense of pride in being a self-sufficient nation but this is negated if the crops are left to rot or be eaten by rats in warehouses while people go hungry outside. Consider how monumental this waste is: the labor, water, nutrients that went into the harvest, all lost. From the farmer’s perspective, the lack of storage at the farm is a huge disadvantage. He is thus forced to rush the harvest to the market and accept whatever price is on offer. Being able to store the harvest would enable farmers to bring grains or produce to the market in response to demand and command a better price.
The solution lies partly in policy measures by the government: measures that will increase investment in infrastructure, extension, agricultural research, improve access to credit and new technology for farmers and partly in the methods of cultivation. Given these constraints, biotechnology can offer significant options.

Potential Biotechnology

Climate resilience
In the past, floods meant destruction of the year’s rice harvest for the farmer. The swarna 1 rice variety developed by the International Rice Research Institute is able to survive upto two weeks of standing water and is a huge gain fro rice farmers.

China has reportedly developed a modified rice which could require less fertilizer, less nitrogen would be released into the atmosphere which would help reduce smog. In Vietnam where flooding and sea water intrusion are threatening the Mekong delta, new varieties of rice are being developed to combat both these challenges. Bangladesh has indigenously developed a strain of rice than can grow in high salinity areas. This is not a genetically modified variety but developed by crossing two breeds. Conventional efforts like this can take time, mapping out the genes of different strains can speed up the development of the new varieties required to equip the food system to combat climate change.

Pest resistance
The best known examples of the use of biotechnology to prevent crop loss due to pests are Bt corn, soy and cotton. Bangladesh’s introduction of Bt Brinjal is being viewed with interest and the reports are encouraging. There is a sharp drop in pesticide application by the farmers growing the new variety and increasing demand from farmers to be allowed to use the improved seeds.

A recent study noted the major environmental benefits from biotechnology, including reduction use in pesticides in 2013 to the level of 600,000 tonnes. They also cause a “halo effect” so that neighboring non-GMO fields also experience reduced pest activity. Reduction in greenhouse gases from no-till and other practices associated with biotechnology were equivalent to removing 12.4 million cars from the road. The net economic benefit for that year from the use of biotechnology was $20.5 billion, divided roughly equally between the developed and developing countries.

By producing greater yields, GMO crops require less land to grow and that means that land can go into conservation creating more green spaces.

Where Are We Today?

It is encouraging to know that field trials for modified rice, cotton, maize, mustard, brinjal and chickpea have been approved. This holds great promise for Indian agriculture. There have been delays in bringing these crops even as far as these trials because of opposition to biotechnology and the testing process needs to be a thorough and rigorous one. Indeed, no responsible advocate for this technology will call for its adoption without careful consideration and the setting of a biosafety framework is also recommended. GMO crops are the most tested, conventionally grown crops or hybrids do not face such in depth scrutiny yet they are readily available in the market.

The idea that organic or agro-ecology methods are incompatible with the use of biotechnology is misplaced. Practices like cover crops, crop rotation, no till which promote soil health when combined with high quality seeds are a sounds basis for raising agricultural productivity. The call to go back to the “good old past” is based on a false sense of nostalgia: there is nothing good about spending hours bent over weeding in the hot sun. We remember how close we came to famine while following the good old ways and the gains of the Green Revolution that saved us from that fate. We have the option of choosing to take the path offered by biotechnology and we need to base our decision on the facts and not on unfounded fear.

Addressing the Concerns

1. Are they safe?
Over 2,000 studies have concluded that GMO crops are safe for human consumption. Europe is often cited as an example of caution against GMOs. Even here, a decade long study found that GMOs are safe and hold potential. It should be noted that GMO feed is widely used in Europe for livestock without any adverse impact. The scientific consensus on this issue is as strong as that on climate change.

2. Control of multinational corporations
 Monsanto is the company most associated with this technology and most often evoked to demonstrate the negative impact of GMOs but it is only one of many companies like Syngenta, Dow, Dupont etc which produces seeds for GMO crops. Biotechnology is a technique, not to be confused with the company that uses it to produce seeds. Google is the most widely used search engine, which does not make its technology or Google itself, evil. Indeed we have all found it very useful. All companies work to make profits and that is not a reason to condemn their technology either.

Also, there are many instances where there is no corporate presence at all, for instance in the case of Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh. The best example of this is perhaps Golden Rice which was developed by two scientists, provided for free to the International Rice Research Institute (a multilateral research organization) which further improved it and will make the seeds available for free to farmers when the opposition to it ceases. In the meantime, lives are lost every year to Vitamin A deficiency while the means to combat this stays unused.

India has skilled scientists and could develop the potential of biotechnology in ways appropriate and required for agriculture to prosper and this research could be in the public domain without fear of control by foreign corporations.

3. Patents
GMO crops do carry patents for a limited time, some of Monsanto’s patents expired last year, for instance. Patents are common in pharmaceuticals and other industries as well, they are not a particular feature of GMOs, if they are acceptable elsewhere then there should not be an issue in this case.

4. Saving seeds
There has been a lot of fuss made over the fact that farmers have to sign a contract not to reuse seeds. In fact, this practice is true for non-gmo hybrid seeds as well. That is because the traits which they are bred for may not show up in the second generation so new seeds are required. The cost of purchasing seeds is more than covered and profits made on the new crop which will be healthy and fetch a good price in the market. Saving seeds is also dependent on having proper storage facilities so that seeds are not damaged by weather, mold or rodent activity, and such facilities are rare for poor smallholders.

5. Unknown consequences
Humans have been trying to improve crop varieties for thousands of years, and they have been doing it randomly, crossing one strain with another in the hopes of finding the apple that would be juicy and last longer or the corn that would ripen faster and have better taste. There was no way of knowing what was happening at the genetic level in these cases. Now we have the techniques that allow us to be precise and modify the single gene that would increase drought tolerance or ensure pest resistance so the concern over consequences is limited.

6. It is not “natural”
There is a lot of misinformation in the public domain over what genetic modification means, it is not the random insertion of genes from different species. Rather it is a means of achieving a goal in the most precise way, so a rice gene is spliced in to increase flood tolerance in sub 1 rice, a gene is silenced in apples to prevent browning and wastage in Arctic apples. Being able to determine exactly which gene to work means the possibility of unintended consequences is minimal. In fact, there is even a naturally occurring GMO sweet potato. Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru have found genes from bacteria in sweet potato varieties grown in the US, South America, Africa, China and Indonesia. It is proposed that the bacteria genes helped the potato plants make two hormones that alter the root and make it edible.


The division of agriculture into organic, conventional and GMO is arbitrary and false. To meet the challenge of providing adequate and nutritious food for all the people on the planet in a time of climate disruption, we need to consider all options, and farmers already use a mix of farming practices that yield best results. For example, farming practices such as crop rotation and cover crops are ebing used in farms growing conventional and GMO crops as all farmers are interested in maintaining soil health. Organic crops can be strengthened further: consider the proposal of “rewilding” in which genes from an ancient plant variety (no longer in use) is fused with a modern variety which would create a desirable trait like saline tolerance or drought resistance. This would not involve genes from another species which has been the basis of objections. Newer varieties of GMOs now being developed, may also allow for seed saving.

The farm sector today is characterized by disenchantment, the younger generation is looking to move out from this sector but industry has not provided avenues of employment either. It is time to strengthen agriculture instead of looking elsewhere. The growth plans for the Indian economy need to incorporate a strong plan for the agricultural sector. We cannot keep waiting for the monsoons and lurching from one weather disaster to the next, a very likely prospect as climate change grows more disruptive.

This will require investment in infrastructure: better irrigation, better roads, post-harvest storage facilities, extension to share new technology with farmers, access to credit so that farmers can make the required investment in their farms, security of land tenure and the seeds that will ensure climate resilient, nutritious and abundant yield. A vision that encompasses every sector and level of activity is the optimum path to a truly strong and secure economy.

As for the issue of farmer suicides which started this piece, analysis that these are not linked to the use of GMOs is available from different sources. But to Indians, this piece which identifies crippling indebtedness, market uncertainty, insecurity of land ownership, among others, as the factors causing stress on the farm may resonate more because it states what we have all known for a long time, a reality reflected in our villages, our literature and memories: that these deaths are only the latest in a long history of our sad failure to support those who grow our food.


Author completed her M.Phil in Economics from Punjab University, India
Worked as consultant for The World Bank

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