|The last supper|
|Monday, 17 January 2011 00:00|
If the price of onions seems high now, wait till 2020. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research projects that India will need a 30% boost in rice and cereal production, 140% in pulses and 243% growth in oilseeds to meet the needs of the ever-expanding population. Given that Indian agricultural output has grown a dismal 2.4% per year in the past 10 years and that the total arable land in the country has remained fixed at 140 million hectares for a few decades, boosting productivity by more than double is a gargantuan task. Add to this the projections about the likelihood of cultivable land being lost to submergence, drought and increase in salinity. The Seed Bill waiting to be tabled in Parliament seeks to address some of the major hurdles that Indian agriculture is facing, including the consideration of genetically modified (GM) seeds and their incorporation into food crop cultivation. GM and other technological breakthroughs have transformed the landscape of cotton and maize cultivation in the country. India has emerged as the second-largest producer of cotton as a result of Bt cotton, and maize productivity has increased by 60% as a result of hybrid varieties. Given these monumental gains from the infusion of new technology via hybrid and GM crops, the government’s policy barring the introduction of Bt brinjal, despite being given a clean chit in a joint report by seven agricultural institutions, appears ill-advised. As Bt cotton raised yields while reducing costs to the farmer, Bt brinjal is expected to work in much the same way. Although the shortage exists across the board and the introduction of one or two GM food crops will not solve the food insecurity problems, it’s a step in the right direction.
At the state level, the agricultural departments have an important role to play in educating farmers on different types of seeds, sowing strategies including crop rotation to keep the land arable for longer, effective water utilisation, climate patterns, suitable crops based on types of soil and so on. This information is probably available only to big commercial farmers, if that; small farmers and those practising subsistence agriculture do not have access. That there have been some stunning successes in certain pockets with rice yields points to the fact that high-quality extension services are invaluable. But they’re few and far between.