Managing the anticipated food crisis

A street vendor selling vegetable near Kochi on Friday. Heavy rain and consequent crop losses in certain parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu coupled with an increasing demand in the south Indian markets have pushed up vegetable prices to double, 40 to 60 per cent rise over the last few months in Kerala market. Market sources said that the price was not expected to come down until the second half of January as the winter and Sabarimala season sees a peak in demand in most parts of the state,Photo : K_K_Mustafah.26/11/2010

A street vendor selling vegetable near Kochi on Friday. Heavy rain and consequent crop losses in certain parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu coupled with an increasing demand in the south Indian markets have pushed up vegetable prices to double, 40 to 60 per cent rise over the last few months in Kerala market. Market sources said that the price was not expected to come down until the second half of January as the winter and Sabarimala season sees a peak in demand in most parts of the state,Photo : K_K_Mustafah.26/11/2010   | Photo Credit: K_K_Mustafah

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has alerted developing countries about possible steep rises in food prices during 2011, if steps are not taken immediately to increase significantly the production of major food crops. According to FAO, “with the pressure on world prices of most commodities not abating, the international community must remain vigilant against further supply shocks in 2011.” World cereal production is likely to contract by 2 per cent during 2010 and global cereal stocks may decline sharply. The price of sugar has reached a 30-year high while international prices of wheat increased by 12 per cent in the first week of December, 2010, as compared to their November average.

The quantitative and qualitative dimensions of the under- and mal-nutrition prevailing in our country are well known. The Steering Committee of a High Level Panel of Experts on Food and Nutrition set up under my chairmanship to advise the UN Committee on Food Security (CFS) recently concluded what we need urgently is a comprehensive coordinated approach, not piecemeal approaches, to tackling chronic, hidden and transitory hunger. This is also the lesson we can learn from countries which have been successful in combating hunger such as Brazil which, under its “Zero Hunger” programme, has achieved convergence and synergy among numerous nutrition safety net programmes. To some extent, this is what is being attempted under the proposed National Food Security (or Entitlements) Act of the Government of India.

What should be our priority agenda for 2011 on the food front? At least six areas need urgent and concurrent attention. First, the National Policy for Farmers placed in Parliament in November 2007, on the basis of a draft provided by the National Commission on Farmers (NCF), should not continue to remain a piece of paper, but should be implemented in letter and in spirit. This is essential to revive farmers' interest in farming. Without the wholehearted involvement of farmers, particularly of young as well as women farmers, it will be impossible to implement a Food Entitlements Act in an era of increasing price volatility in the international market. The major emphasis of the National Policy for Farmers is imparting an income orientation to agriculture through both higher productivity per units of land, water and nutrients, and assured and remunerative marketing opportunities. The Green Revolution of the 1960s was the product of interaction among technology, public policy and farmers' enthusiasm. Farmers, particularly in north west India, converted a small government programme into a mass movement. The goal of food for all can be achieved only if there is similar enthusiastic participation by farm families.

Second, every State government should launch a “bridge the yield gap” movement, to take advantage of the vast untapped yield reservoir existing in most farming systems even with the technologies currently on the shelf. This will call for a careful study of the constraints — technological, economic, environmental and policy — responsible for this gap. The Rs.25,000-crore Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana of the Government of India provides adequate funding for undertaking such work both in irrigated and rainfed areas. Enhancing factor productivity leading to more income per unit of investment on inputs will be essential for reducing the cost of production and increasing the net income. Scope for increasing the productivity of pulses and oilseed crops is particularly great. The programme for establishing 50,000 Pulses and Oilseed Villages included in the Union budget for 2010-11 is yet to be implemented properly. The cost of protein in the diet is going up and Pulses Villages will help to end protein hunger.

There are outstanding varieties of chickpea, pigeon pea, moong, urad and other pulses available now. What is important is to multiply the good strains and cultivate them with the needed soil health and plant protection measures. The gap between demand and supply in the case of pulses is nearly 4 million tonnes. We should take advantage of the growing interest among farmers in the cultivation of pulses, both due to the prevailing high prices and due to these crops requiring less irrigation water. Such high value, but low water requiring crops also fix nitrogen in the soil. Before the advent of mineral fertilizers, cereal-legume rotation was widely adopted for soil fertility replenishment and build-up.

Third, the prevailing mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies should be ended. Safe storage, marketing and value addition to primary products have to be attended to at the village level. Home Science colleges can be enabled to set up Training Food Parks for building the capacity of self-help groups of women in food processing. A national grid of ultra-modern grain storage facilities must be created without further delay. In addition to over 250 million tonnes of food grains, we will soon be producing over 300 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables. Unless processing and storage are improved, post-harvest losses and food safety concerns will continue to grow.

We should also expand the scope of the Public Distribution System by including in the food basket a whole range of underutilised plants like millets and, where feasible, tubers. The NCF pointed out that eastern India is a sleeping giant in the field of food production. The sustainable management of the Ganges Water Machine (this term was first used by Professor Roger Revelle) will provide uncommon opportunities for an evergreen revolution in this area. Fortunately Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is taking steps to make Bihar the heartland of the evergreen revolution movement in this region. The Ganges Water Machine is capable of helping us to increase food production considerably, provided we utilise ground water efficiently during rabi and replenish the aquifer during kharif.

Four, a nutrition dimension should be added to the National Horticulture and Food Security Missions. Hidden hunger caused by the deficiency of micronutrients like iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A and Vitamin B12 can be overcome at the village level by taking advantage of horticultural remedies for nutritional maladies. Popularisation of multiple fortified salt will also be valuable, since this is both effective and economical.

Five, a small farm management revolution which will confer on farmers operating one hectare or less the power and economy of scale is an urgent need. There are several ways of achieving this and these have been described in detail in the chapter titled, “Farmers of the 21st Century” in the NCF report. We need to foster the growth of a meaningful services sector in rural India, preferably operated by educated young farmers. The services provided should cover all aspects of production and post-harvest operations. Group credit and group insurance will be needed. Contract farming can be promoted if it is structured on the basis of a win-win situation both for the producer and the purchaser.

Finally, there is need for proactive action to minimise the adverse impact of unfavourable changes in climate and monsoon behaviour and to maximise the benefits of favourable weather conditions. For enabling farmers to develop a “we shall overcome” attitude in the emerging era of climate change, we need to set up in each of the 128 aqro-climatic zones identified by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research a Climate Risk Management Research and Training Centre. These centres should develop alternative cropping patterns to suit different weather probabilities. They should develop methods of checkmating potential adverse conditions. Along with a climate literacy movement, a woman and a man from every panchayat and nagarpalika will have to be trained as Climate Risk Managers. We will then have over half-a-million trained Climate Risk Managers, well versed in the science and art of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Such a trained cadre of grassroot Climate Risk Managers will be the largest of its kind in the world.

The present year is ending with damage to rice and other crops in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu due to excess of rain towards the end of the crop season. Farming is the riskiest profession in the world since the fate of the crop is closely linked to the behaviour of the monsoon. Even if there is assured irrigation source, natural calamities like cyclones, hail storms and very heavy showers take their toll. The National Monsoon Mission proposed to be taken up with the participation of U.S. expertise will certainly help to refine the prediction of weather as well as the status of crops and commodity prices. Also, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme provides unique opportunities for strengthening our water security system through scientific rain water harvesting and watershed management. This valuable benefit can however be realised only by integrating technology with labour. Once a national grid of Climate Risk Management Research and Training Centre comes into existence, it will be possible to build up seed banks of alternative crops, which can be grown if the first crop fails. Drought and Flood Codes should specify the action possible at the end of such calamities. For example in the flood affected areas, soil moisture will be adequate to grow a short duration fodder crop or a Vitamin A rich sweet potato.

Eternal vigilance is the price of stable agriculture. Early warning helps to take timely action. Food and water security will be the most serious causalities of climate change. 2011 will be a test case to assess whether we as a nation are capable of initiating proactive action to meet the challenges of price volatility, chronic hunger, agrarian despair and climate change.

(Professor M.S. Swaminathan is Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)).

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