Sustainable Agriculture for Food Security N. G. Hegde



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Sustainable Agriculture for Food Security

N.G. Hegde


Sustainable Agriculture for Food Security. Indian Farming. 49(12). Mar.: 4-11, 2000.

Population Growth leading to Scarcity
It is estimated that once the population in India crosses 1.38 billion in 2025 A.D., the country will have to import about 60 million tons of foodgrains annually. During this stage, the annual demand for food will have increased to 325 million tons/year, while the production might remain stagnant at 250 million tons/year. Surely that will mark the worst period in economic crisis, when the people might have to move around with begging bowls to ensure food supply for survival.
In a resource poor country like India, if we are dependent on others even for food, apart from other essential commodities, such as oil, natural gas, basic ingredients for fertilisers, heavy engineering materials, nuclear power and computer technologies, there will hardly be anything left in the country to export and settle the import bills. Presently about 50% of the petroleum consumed in the country is imported and by 2035 A.D., we are likely to exhaust the oil reserves as well. Coal is the major source of fossil fuel in India, which can last for some more period, but as the quality is poor, there will hardly be any takers. The opportunity for exporting other minerals is also insignificant. Thus without earning any foreign exchange, how can we import foodgrains to feed our population ?

Our only hope is that 35 years is a long period and there is some scope, if we wish to take some positive steps to ease the crisis. The immediate need is to address the problem faced by the year 2010,when the population will have reached 1150 million and the annual demand for food will have reached 240 million tons. To cope with the increasing demand, we need to enhance the agricultural production by 20%, from the present level of 198 million tons. Under normal circumstances, a target to maintain 2% growth can solve the problem. This should not be difficult as we have recorded a higher average annual growth of 2.37% during the last decade. However the strategy adopted in early 70’s to boost food production has been well-exploited so far and the productivity has now reached the level of saturation. We therefore need to look into various factors affecting the crop production and modify our strategy to address these problems, while making optimum use of the available resources and technologies to reach the new target.


Current Status of Crop Yields

Considering the current levels of agricultural crop yields in other regions as presented in Table 1, the task is within the reach of the Indian farmers. Presently the average cereal crop yield in India is 1935 kg/ha, as compared to 4329 kg/ha in China, 4040 kg/ha in United States and 2757 kg/ha in the world. With regard to per capita land holding and percentage of the crop lands covered under irrigation, India does not lag behind significantly. Regarding the use of fertilisers, the average use in India is significantly lower than in China, but closer to North America. Therefore it should be possible to increase the food production in India by adopting scientific methods and necessary inputs.


Table 2 shows crop-wise comparative data on cropping area, yield and production in 1980-81 and 1994-95 indicate that the adaptation of modern agricultural production technologies in the past to boost the yields were limited to only a few crops such as wheat, paddy and maize. It is only because of an increase in the yield of wheat that the average yield of cereal crops has increased during recent years. None of the other crops have exceeded this average cereal crop yield, although the potential yield of these crops is in the range of 2500 and 3500 kg/ha. Rice is the major crop with over 43 million ha, contributing about 42% of the total foodgrains produced in the country. Out of the total area, about 90% is under Kharif season with an average yield 1776 kg/ha, while 10% area under Rabi has been yielding 2761 kg/ha. This 40% increase in the yield, despite the possible water scarcities indicates the scope for increasing the Kharif crop yield with better management. The yield of other crops in rabi season has also been higher than that in Kharif season. Crops such as sorghum, bajra, gram and oil seeds cover over 35% cropping area, but the yields are extremely low. This could be due to inadequate inputs and inferior varieties
Application of higher doses of chemical fertilisers has a direct influence on the crop yields atleast upto 100 kg/ha. In China, where the cereal crop yield is 4329 kg/ha - the highest in the world, the average fertilisers applied for cereal crops is 284 kg/ha, whereas the world average is 96 kg/ha. However, the average cereal crop yield in Europe is 4295 kg/ha - only 1.0% lower as compared to China with over 30% lower doses of fertilisers. The average cereal yield in United States is 4040 kg/ha, with only 87 kg fertilisers per hectare. The reduction in the yield by 6.7% with over 70% reduction in fertiliser application highlights the scope for judicious use of external inputs for sustainable crop production.
In India, the average fertiliser application in advanced states like Punjab is 167.3 kg/ha, followed by Andhra Pradesh (137.3 kg/ha), Haryana (123.7 kg/ha) and Tamil Nadu (106.9 kg/ha), while the national average of fertiliser consumption is only 73 kg/ha. The average fertiliser consumption in Kerala, Gujarat and Maharashtra is lower than the national average, while several backward states lag far behind. This is because the farmers having irrigation facilities have only been making optimum use of chemical fertilisers, and four major crops, namely sugarcane, paddy, wheat and cotton consume over 80% of the total quantity of fertilisers used in the country. Even in these crops, the response to fertilizer application is not very encouraging like in United States. This can be due to improper nutritional balance, untimely application and other factors such as varieties, crop protection and inadequate management. It has been observed that as against the recommended N:P:K ratio of 4:2:1, Indian farmers have been applying fertiliser in 8.5:2.6:1 ratio, which induces initial vegetative growth, susceptible to pests, diseases, lodging and causes poor floral induction and delayed maturity, thereby reducing the yield. Such excessive use of nitrogenous fertilisers, while economising on P and K has been attributed to availability of N fertilisers at a subsidised cost, while P and K fertilisers are expensive. Organic matter content in the soil also plays a significant role in making efficient use of chemical fertilizers by the crops. This reflects also on lack of awareness among farmers about appropriate technologies for enhancing crop production.

In irrigated areas, where the water distribution has been undertaken by the State Irrigation Department, the irrigation tariff for different crops has been fixed on the basis of scientific water requirement, rather than actual quantity of water used by the farmers. As most of these irrigation schemes have been commissioned in the recent past, the farmers who were earlier practising dry farming, still believe that excessive use of water can increase the crop yields. Due to free access to water which does not cost more, there has been gross misuse and wastage of irrigation water. This surplus quantity of water has been causing soil salinity and drainage problems, leading to reduction in crop yields, while depriving many other farmers of irrigation. Excessive use of water for irrigation has also been causing nutrient loss and acceleration of pests and diseases.


While excessive use of water has been responsible for damaging over 9.0 million ha fertile farm lands and turning them into saline wastelands, rainwater in non-irrigated areas has been wasted to a great extent. Presently over 73% area under crop production is dependent on rainfall and more than one half of this area is located in a low rainfall zone. In these areas about 65% of the precipitation is lost through surface run off, while causing soil erosion and loss of mineral nutrients. In rain fed areas where soil moisture conditions are uncertain, farmers are unable to take any risk of cultivating improved varieties or applying higher doses of fertilisers. Hence the crop yields in these regions are extremely low. The problem is becoming more serious with recent climatic changes, when unexpected rains damage the crops and confuse the farmers in taking corrective measures. These problems can be handled more efficiently, if greater emphasis is given to watershed development and storage of rainwater in farm ponds and percolation tanks. With such facilities, the farmers can take up immediate sowing, with the confidence of providing initial irrigation to protect the new crop. They may also develop an attitude towards the application of optimum doses of fertilisers, if irrigation facilities are available in times of emergency.
Scope for Increasing Crop Yields
The factors responsible for higher yield are high soil productivity, supply of balanced crop nutrients, efficient water management, improved crops, better plant protection, post-production management for value addition and marketing. Warm weather and intensive sunlight are the other important inputs which are more favourable in India compared to most of the other countries.
Soil productivity is based on the mineral composition and structure of the soil, depth and drainage facilities, organic matter, intensity of earthworm and microbial activities. Fairly well productive soils in combination with assured irrigation and optimum supply of nutrients can enhance the crop yields by 200-300%, as compared to normal crops grown under rainfed conditions. Selection of suitable crops, improved varieties and efficient plant protection can also play a significant role in increasing the crop yields. Although the integration of these inputs is critical this has often been overlooked by most of the small and marginal farmers. In the absence of adequate extension education, even the large holders have been making grave mistakes and ending up in losses. Introduction of high yielding varieties without adequate investment on inputs and plant protection has been the major cause for failure of cotton crop in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra which has led to the recent death of several hundreds of farmers.
Rising cost of external inputs, disproportionate to the price for the produce is another problem faced by the farmers in India. Except for some crops like sugarcane, paddy and wheat, where the government has fixed minimum support price, most of the other commodities are subject to severe price fluctuations controlled by unfair market forces and traders. Even these support prices fail to satisfy the farmers, as they can hardly make some savings with such low prices. It is thus clear that food production cannot be increased merely by promoting the use of agrochemicals and other inputs, particularly by small farmers.
Focus on Small Farmers
Capability of the farmers to manage their own farms is another important factor influencing the crop yields. While the rich and elite farmers have been able to adapt improved agronomic practices to earn good returns, poor and uneducated farmers who receive incomplete information or cannot raise money on time to procure critical inputs, generally end up with lower crop yields and huge losses. Hence the strategy to enhance the food production should address the problems of such unsuccessful farmers, who represent over 75% of the total holders in the country. They own less than two ha land per family, mostly infertile and non-irrigated. They have been practising low-external input farming and the crop yields have been substantially low. Although their contribution to the national food production has been insignificant, it has been meeting a significant part of their food needs.
Increase in food production in the country does not necessarily ensure food security, if the poor do not have the buying power. Therefore participation of small farmers in food production is essential to achieve food security in the country. Most of them being illiterate and having failed earlier either in adapting new technologies or repaying the loan provided under various development schemes sponsored by the government, they have lost confidence both in themselves and the Extension Agencies. They need support not only to procure inputs but also to gain confidence.
Initially they should be exposed to various technologies and opportunities to improve the production and then encouraged to adapt improved practices gradually in several stages, without taking any risk to invest in expensive external inputs. Although such a strategy will take a long time for small holders to increase their crop yields at par with the elite practising improved agriculture, however it will help them to sustain their requirement. With increasing production, the foodgrain deficit within the community will be reduced and even the poor and landless can locally procure foodgrains at the farm gate price, at 30-40 % lower than the retail price. Thus most of the poor can afford to meet their needs inspite of lower income and escape starvation. This is the importance of production by the masses for ensuring food for the poor.
With initial support to develop their capabilities, skills and resources, small farmers can take their own decisions on cropping pattern and use of external inputs to enhance crop production. Simultaneously, the large holders can be encouraged to make necessary investments on external inputs with sound technological support to maximise the production. As the backward farmers generally follow the progressive and rich farmers, in this process of capacity building, both rich and poor can contribute their best to increase the food production.
Sustainable Agriculture
It is necessary to promote sustainable agriculture to safeguard the economic viability of the farmers. Sustainable agriculture is a set of farming practices which can continue to maintain the farm productivity, efficiency and profitability in the long run, without depleting the natural resources and the environment. For ensuring the sustainability of small farmers, it may be useful to encourage the adaptation of indigenous skills, use of internal inputs, preferably from organic sources, least dependence on external inputs, greater emphasis on crop diversity, symbiotic crop rotation, production focused on local needs and easy marketability.
Farmers, particularly the small holders need proper orientation to take suitable decisions on crop selection, investment in various inputs, storage and marketing, based on the information on technical developments, government policies and prices of inputs and outputs. Large and elite land holders should also be encouraged to adapt these eco-friendly measures for profitability and environmental safety. Farming systems which can fulfill these criteria can lead to eco-friendly green revolution. In such situations, we can reduce the consumption and production of agrochemicals. The polluting automobiles need not run up and down between the cities and villages to transport agricultural inputs and outputs. The cost of food production can be lower and the retail price of locally produced agricultural commodities will also come down, when more poor people can afford to buy adequate food to maintain a balanced diet. This is a `win-win’ situation for all, except the transport and traders.
In the process of avoiding or reducing the use of external inputs, if the small farmers can adapt organic farming, the consumers can get healthy food and productivity of the soil can also be conserved. With better awareness about benefits of organic food, the consumers will be prepared to pay a higher price for eco-friendly produce. Hence low-external input agriculture can be attractive, particularly for small holders.
Extension of Traditional Wisdom
For ensuring sustainable agriculture, it is advisable to explore the traditional wisdom and promote local practices. The study of local traditions will help in understanding the soil fertility and water management systems developed over years. As these practices have helped in the past to produce enough food grains before the introduction of chemical fertilizers, sustainable agriculture can promoted on these traditions. Thus sustainable farming is the extension of traditional practices with necessary modifications.
With a significant change in the ecosystem, forest coverage, livestock holding pattern and lifestyle in rural areas, it is becoming difficult to generate adequate quantity of farmyard manure which was the major source of nutrients in olden days. With increasing deforestation, diversion of biomass for fuel and commercial use, farmers are not able collect biomass from the forests and community lands. But there has been an increase in agricultural byproducts and domestic garbage, which can be used for composting. With the promotion of agroforestry, live hedges and wind breaks, it is possible to produce biomass useful for green manure. Cultivation of green manure crop of short duration between two crops is another option to enhance soil fertility. Adaptation of dairy farming with high yielding cattle and buffaloes, stall feeding and installation of biogas plants can generate significant quantity of farmyard manure, while generating additional income and energy. Use of earthworms can further improve the quality of the manure.
The soil productivity can be further enhanced through soil and water conservation, improved drainage, contour bunding and establishment of live hedges. In arid and semiarid regions where the use of chemical fertilisers is risky, application of organic manure and biofertilisers, adaption of tree-based farming, coupled with improved drought tolerant crop varieties and integrated pest management can be promoted to boost the yields. Replacement of local seeds with certified seeds, change of crops, use of improved farm implements, mineral nutrients, plant protection measures and installation of irrigation system are some of the new initiatives to further enhance the crop yields. Post-harvest processing, storage and marketing are other areas where both small and large holders have been incurring heavy losses. This area need introduction of modern technologies and infrastructure development which can add value to the produce, while reducing the cost of handling.
Need for Support and Coordination
Transfer of Technologies: Indian agriculture in general is due for modernisation, which has been presently adapted for a few selected crops. These include the use of efficient irrigation systems, biofertilisers, biopesticides, safe agrochemicals and improved seeds, which have direct bearing on crop yields and cost of production. Simple techniques for soil, water and plant analysis to maintain nutritional balance, weed and pest management to reduce nutrient losses are some areas where technology transfer has been lagging behind. Farmers can be oriented to make judicious use of nutrients based on the soil fertility, organic matter content, soil moisture availability and the crop requirement, as the balance between organic manure, macro and micro-nutrients is very critical to induce flowering and crop yields. It is therefore necessary to strengthen the linkage between the Agricultural Research Institutions and State Agricultural Extension Department with the farmers at the village level, preferably through local voluntary agencies. The State Agricultural Extension Department and the Krishi Vigyan Kendras should focus their role on providing such field technical service through training, demonstration and field visits. The Agriculture Department should also play a role in coordinating between various other departments like Irrigation Department, Food Processing Department, Agricultural Credit and Banking to ensure better services.
Research and Technology Development: There is good scope to further improve the crop production, through application of growth regulators and hormones. These are available both in natural and synthetic forms useful for control of vegetative growth, floral induction, control the maturity period and to enhance the crop yield. These techniques are also useful to improve the quality to synchronize the harvesting time with peak demand for the produce. Development of safe and inexpensive biological plant protection devices should also be given priority.
Production of efficient farm equipment and machinery can improve the productivity and reduce the cost. Presently the tractors are hardly used for 250-300 hours in a year, mainly for pre-sowing operations and for occasional transportation. If the idle time can be used for non-farm operations and to run small scale industries, the farmers can reduce their overheads on crop production and generate additional employment.
Information Support: Weather forecasts, advice on suitable cropping, information service on market demand and supplies, periodic reports on area under various crops and scope for further expansion and incidence of pests and diseases, through mass media can help the farmers to take suitable decisions. These support services can be established by the government or competent Farmers’ Organisations and made available to farmers regularly.
Strengthening of Farmers’ Organisations: Dependency on outsiders has been the cause for rural exploitation. To reduce the exploitation by middlemen, village level farmers’ organisation should be developed throughout the country. These organisations can also motivate the farmers to adapt improved farming practice, while procuring critical inputs well in time. These organisations can arrange loan from financial institutions for their members. With the development of farmers’ organisations and improvement in crop production, farmers can appoint their own technical advisors and extension officers, as presently undertaken by the sugar cooperatives. Farmers organisations like Federations of Sugar Cooperatives, Milk Unions, Grape Growers Cooperative, Apple Growers Cooperative, tea producers and many such commodity growers have been very successful in India in organising the growers to improve their production, post harvest handling such as storage, processing and marketing to ensure stable market and remunerative price. In the absence of such organisations for other

commodities, there has been tremendous harassment for both growers and consumers. In case of onion, with only 10-15% reduction in the production, the price had increased by 400-600% but the benefits of such price rise has hardly reached the growers. This calls for various kinds of farmers’ organisations to cover certain geographic areas and who are specialised in handling specific commodities.


Land Reforms and Consolidation: There are two kinds of land holding patterns, which are affecting the crop production. The first category of farmers have large holdings but are unable to make efficient use of such lands for agricultural production. Among them are many absentee landholders who are afraid of leasing out for cultivation, keep their land. The other category of farmers is those having small holdings, where improved agricultural practices are not feasible. Farmers belonging to both these categories are not willing to involve others for cultivation, as the present Land Reforms Acts can entitle the tiller to own the land. Hence, there is need for relaxation in the Land Reforms and Land Ceiling Acts. Farmers interested in leasing land for short or long term may be allowed to do so on attractive terms. Corporate sectors interested in agricultural development may be permitted to take land on lease from farmers. With such large scale contract farming, it will be economically viable to introduce new technologies and provide a stable market for farm produce. Hence there is an urgent need to review the present Land Ceiling Acts to encourage corporate farming, while safeguarding the interest of the farmers.
Conclusion
Looking to the prevalent farming practices in India and the scope for coping with advances in agricultural development in other parts of the world, there is good scope for improvement. There is also a wide gap between the elite and backward farmers within the country. The task of achieving sufficiency in food production, involving small farmers, is well within the reach. The Agricultural Extension Department should reset its role as a facilitator to coordinate with various departments to ensure better service to small farmers and to reduce the communication gap presently existing between the agencies concerned with sustainable development and farmers.
References
Anon. 1995. World Resources, 1994. World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.

Government of India. 1997. Economic Survey, 1996-97 : 137-141, S 17-19.



Table 1: Comparative Agricultural Production in different Regions





Sr.

No.

Inputs / Particulars

India

China

Asia

Europe

North

America

World


1.

Crop land :

ha/capita



0.20

0.08

0.14

0.27

0.69

0.27

2.

Irrigated land :

% of total crop land 1989-91



27

49

33

12

10

17

3.

Av. fertiliser use

kg / ha (1989-91)



73

284

123

192

87

96

4.

Total cropped area

(mill. Ha)



169.70

96.56

457.51

138.02

271.80

1441.57

5.

Total cereal production

Mill. Tons (1990-92)



196.17

399.93

875.97

281.42

398.32

1928.04

6.

Average yield of cereals

Kg/ha. (1990-92)



1935

4329

2854

4295

4040

2757

7.

No. of tractors

(million)



0.971

0.828

5.497

10.385

5.814

26.420

Source: Anon. 1995.

Table 2. Crop-Wise Area, Yield and Food Production in India





Foodgrains

Area

(Million ha)

Yield

(kg/ha)

Total

Production

(million tons)

Area under irrigation

(% of crop)




1980-81

1995-96

1980-81

1995-96

1980-81

1995-96

1993-94

Food Grains

Kharif


Rabi

126.7

83.7


43.5

123.5

74.5


49.0

1023

933


1195

1499

1318


1778

129.6

77.7


51.9

185.1

98.2


86.9

38.7

(48.2)


Cereals

Kharif


Rabi

104.2

72.8


31.4

99.5

63.9


35.6

1142

1015


1434

1727

1460


2207

119.0

73.9


45.1

171.9

93.4


78.5

45

(45.6)


Pulses

Kharif


Rabi

22.5

10.4


12.1

23.9

10.5


13.4

473

361


571

552

354


540

10.6

3.8


6.8

13.2

4.8


8.4

11.2

(2.6)


Rice

Kharif


Rabi

40.1

38.4


1.7

42.9

39.5


3.4

1336

1303


2071

1855

1776


2761

53.6

50.1


3.5

79.6

70.1


9.5

48.6

(20.7)


Wheat

22.3

25.1

1630

2493

36.3

62.6

22.6

(1.4)


Jowar

Kharif


Rabi

15.8

10.2


5.6

11.5

5.6


5.7

660

737


520

834

1014


651

10.4

7.5


2.9

9.5

5.9


3.7

6.2

(0.8)


Maize

6.0

6.0

1159

1570

7.0

9.4

-

Bajra

11.7

9.4

458

576

5.3

5.4

6.6

(0.7)


Gram

6.6

7.2

657

697

4.3

5.0

-

Tur

2.6

3.6

689

662

2.0

2.4

-

Oilseeds

Kharif


Rabi

17.6

10.2


7.4

26.3

15.6


10.7

582

892


588

851

814


906

9.4

5.0


4.4

22.4

12.7


9.7

23.0

(6.5)


Groundnut

Kharif


Rabi

6.8

5.9


0.9

7.7

6.6


1.1

786

629


1444

1014

884


1772

5.0

3.7


1.3

7.8

5.8


2.0

-


Sugarcane (t)

2.7

4.1

58

68

154.2

282.9

87.0

(3.4)


Cotton

7.8

9.1

152

246

7.0

13.1

34.3

(2.6)


Potato (t)

0.7

1.1

13

17

9.7

19.2

-

Source: Government of India. 1997.


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