Put agriculture high on agenda

A clear signal that agriculture urgently needs attention is that India, the second-biggest producer and consumer of rice, may have to import 2 million tonnes to shore up 2010 supplies. Photo: K.K.Mustafah

A clear signal that agriculture urgently needs attention is that India, the second-biggest producer and consumer of rice, may have to import 2 million tonnes to shore up 2010 supplies. Photo: K.K.Mustafah  

At the world leaders’ meeting in Copenhagen, it is imperative that governments pledge to adopt up-to-date technologies to boost food production as well as outweigh the negative impacts of climate change.

A clear signal that agriculture urgently needs attention is that India, the second-biggest producer and consumer of rice, may have to import 2 million tonnes to shore up 2010 supplies. If this happens, it would be the first time in over two decades that the country imports the grain. Though the government has assured that there is enough stock of rice, it has kept the import option open for subsequent review. Thanks to a severe drought, the summer-sown crop harvest could fall 18 per cent to 69.45 million tonnes compared with the previous year. The monsoon rainfall this year was 23 per cent below normal — the worst since 1972. Next came floods, which further damaged crops.

In the same way, recent storms in Philippines destroyed 1.3 million tons of rice and the south-east Asian country may have to buy a record 2.45 million tons before the end of the year.

Just the news that both India and the Philippines could import huge quantities has swollen the price of rice. Prices will further jack up should Thailand and Vietnam, the world’s largest rice exporters, decide to keep their stocks rather than export them. Pulses in India cost higher every day. Some varieties have crossed the Rs. 100 a kilo mark, putting it out of reach for several Indians.

Looming unrest

Last year food scarcity set off riots from Haiti to Egypt. Fresh unrest looms large over developing nations if food costs shoot up. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food prices in 31 poor countries remain stubbornly high and more than one billion people have to go hungry every day. FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf rightly says that the hunger crisis — affecting one sixth of all of humanity — poses a serious risk for world peace and security.

Keeping pace with a growing world population is not easy for farmers. As demand for food increases, they struggle to extract more crops from each acre of land. Farmers who practise rainfed agriculture in the semi-arid and dry tropics are especially vulnerable as rains here are erratic, soil fertility is poor and crop pests abound. Despite the high risks, rainfed agriculture is practised on 80 per cent of the world’s farm area, and generates almost 70 per cent of the world’s staple foods. The drylands are home to more than 2 billion people. Of these, 1.5 billion depend on agriculture for a living with670 million comprising the poorest of the poor. Sixty five percent of India is semi-arid.

Climate change

Adding to the conundrum is a progressively warming world. Climate change is expected to expand drylands by 11 per cent and this will increase the frequency and severity of droughts across the globe. Unsurprisingly, crop productivity is expected to decline.

Here’s my point: Countries in semi-arid tropics need to be in a better position to feed their own people. They need to grow more food for themselves. New policies that push investment into agricultural productivity and increase farmers’ access to food markets are essential.

Why? First, food self-sufficiency would prevent undue pressure on the international grain trade. It would check wild fluctuations in global prices and avert panic buying in an already thin market.

Second, do we really want to ignore 670 million poor people who not only earn a living from farming but also have to produce the bulk of food? When agriculture is hit, broader economy-wide impacts may also arise. A case in hand is the Kenyan drought of 1998-1999. According to a recently-launched Met Office report commissioned by Barclays, the Kenyan drought caused an overall loss amounting to 16% of GDP, but around 85% of this was incurred through foregone hydropower and falls in industrial production and only 15% due to agriculture.

How can science help

ICRISAT scientists have developed farming systems resilient to shocks, buffering crucial resources like water and nutrients and adapting crops to warmer temperatures and new pest patterns. Changing crop varieties and efficient irrigation can indeed help mitigate risk in the agriculture sector.

We have proven innovations in crop, soil and water management that farmers could quickly deploy in these times of crises. For example, we can help farmers produce more food with less water. Also, ICRISAT-developed pearl millet hybrids can produce seeds even under very hot temperatures and improved sorghum lines are capable of giving good yields even in harsh conditions. In the nutrient-starved soils of sub-Saharan Africa, ICRISAT helps increase agricultural productivity with fertilizer microdosing, which ensures that the right quantity of scarce fertilizer is given to the crop at the right time.

Yet another powerful tool is the integrated watershed management: building micro-irrigation structures advantageously located in the trail of runoff rainwater that would otherwise have just gone down the drain. This advanced watershed system, a model of which ICRISAT set up in Kothapally village of Ranga Reddy district in Andhra Pradesh, uses modern science tools, including GIS, satellite data and remote sensing for maximum efficiency. Advanced watershed systems combine training farmers about high-yield seed varieties, different cropping patterns, and other skills including manufacturing green manure.

Agriculture and food security should be high on international agenda. The G8 rich countries have promised to increase spending on agricultural development by $20 billion over the next three years. While this is commendable, the amount is still woefully less than the $44 billion that FAO estimates will be needed each year to end malnutrition. Also, rich countries have to match their words with action.

But developing countries also need to get their house in order. A paradigm shift from instating makeshift measures during droughts and floods to long-term agricultural solutions needs to come about. Governments need to increase spend on agri-science research and rural infrastructure including roads. Our farmers need better facilities to make them less dependent on erratic rains. To be exact they need superior training, technology and marketing opportunities. These will make farming a profitable enterprise for our smallholder farmers.

Agri-entrepreneurs need to be encouraged by helping them tap into a pool of commercial technologies. This would in turn help farmers access innovative and improved farming systems through small and micro enterprises. Policies could help boost local agricultural production by speeding up irrigation investments, and subsidising farm implements and high-yield seeds. At state-sponsored workshops farmers can learn how best to protect crops during droughts. Also, improve the linkages between farmers and markets.

To tide over the agrarian crisis, smallholder farmers need to be part of the solution. Access to technology, markets and financial funding will help them not only produce more food but also get profitable returns.

( Dr. William D. Dar is Director-General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.)

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2020 2:39:59 AM |

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