India’s food security challenge

The underlying problem of Indian agriculture that threatens food security is extremely low productivity. Photo: K.V.Srinivasan  

The state of India’s food security is worsening by the year. The cost of food items is increasing rapidly, making them unaffordable to a majority of the people. Added to these woes is the short supply of pulses and edible oils, which forces the Central government to import them.

Pulses play a critical role in the diet of the people of India, where large sections are vegetarians. Protein plays a key role in the human diet. It is the body-building nutrient that develops muscles and is responsible for body strength, endurance and productivity at the workplace.

It is established that a human body requires a daily intake of about 50 gm of protein. While people in the developed countries and most of the developing countries have a satisfactory intake of protein, in India the per capita daily intake is only about 10 gm. This endangers health and work performance.

Proteins are amino acids. Out of the 22 amino acids required in the human diet, the body supplies 14. The remaining eight have to come from food. If all the eight amino acids are present in a single food item, it is called a complete protein food.

Since all proteins from animal sources are complete proteins, it is easy to meet the dietary protein requirements of non-vegetarians. However, the main sources of protein for vegetarians are leguminous plants — to which pulses belong. In general, pulses have lower concentrations of protein than animal sources. Besides, none of the pulses — except soybeans — are complete proteins. Therefore, combinations of two or more pulses are needed in a vegetarian diet. Dairy products, which are complete proteins, may also be used to supplement pulse proteins in vegetarian diets.

Given the important role that pulses play in the human diet, their availability needs to be increased indigenously. The common belief that without new high-yielding varieties the country will have to continue importing pulses and edible oils to meet the requirements is not true.

The possibility of improving productivity per acre by an order of two to three times using existing varieties has been demonstrated time and again in grower-fields in India. However, it is not done just by following current production practices but through the adoption of entirely new but simple and farmer-friendly technologies and tools that are now not available to Indian farmers.

The underlying problem of Indian agriculture that threatens food security is extremely low productivity. For example, in the case of rice it is only a third of what has been achieved elsewhere. Cotton productivity is only a sixth of what has been achieved in developed countries. The situation is no different in the case of other crops. In order to progress, the mindset with regard to the following two factors needs to change:

1. It is not the farmer who makes the food: he is only a facilitator. Food is actually made by plants. Therefore it is important to understand the requirements of plants and supply them without restrictions in order for plants to deliver food. Since plants do not talk, their needs are understood through research and experimentation. As indicated by Dr. R.S. Paroda, a former Director-General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), our agriculture scientists will not by themselves be able to cope with the food security challenges that face the country.

The current policy of pampering farmers with subsidies will get us nowhere in terms of improving productivity. This is well understood not only in developed countries but also in developing African countries like Malawi. Malawi was a basket case of poverty, malnutrition and food shortage. Crop productivity improvements have taken it to the point where the country now exports its surplus food to neighboring poor countries.

The lesson India has to learn is that instead of subsidising food supply to the people, the plants need subsidised food such as fertilizers and other inputs in order for them to produce the food to achieve food security.

2. The mindset that assumes that breeding is the solution to all maladies has to change. Nurturing of plants is several times more important in crop productivity improvement than hybrid seeds per se. A hybrid variety will not produce if planted in non-fertile beach soil. But it will produce several times more if planted in fertile soil.

Brazil learnt this lesson years ago and stopped financing breeding for new varieties. Instead, it scours countries around the world and selects promising varieties to test their adaptability to Brazilian climatic conditions and then provides funding just to do that. It has taken stem cuttings of black pepper varieties from Kerala and spent money and effort on crop production practices. Now Brazil’s pepper yield is 1,500 kg an acre compared to India’s average of 350 kg an acre, the lowest among all pepper-producing countries.

India has about 50 million acres of irrigated land and is second only to the United States with 60 million acres. In the U.S. it is possible to raise only one crop a year due to weather constraints. However, many areas in India have the potential to raise three crops a year, provided we learn how to sustain the fertility of the soil. This will be equal to 150 million acres of irrigated land. At the present time our system of monitoring soil fertility and maintaining it is flawed and needs urgent attention. We cannot just bury our heads in soil as ostriches may do.

Finally, we have facilities now in place in Tamil Nadu to adopt new crop production technologies and tools, where crop productivity is routinely maintained at 300 per cent to 500 per cent more per acre than the average in India. We are now in the process of developing infrastructure for the rapid propagation of these highly cost- effective crop production technologies across the country.

(Dr. Lux Lakshmanan, CPAg., CPCS, CPSS, is Director, California Agriculture Consulting Service, Davis, California. e-mail:

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 6:07:47 AM |

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