14th September 2009, ECONOMIC TIMES

Food availability and prices are central to politics. As India gets more political dals, it is sobering to realize that what India needs are more daals.

14th September 2009, ECONOMIC TIMES

Food availability and prices are central to politics. As India gets more political dals, it is sobering to realize that what India needs are more daals.

According to a report drafted for ministers of the G-8 nations, the world faces “a permanent food crisis and global instability unless countries act now to feed a surging population by doubling agricultural output”. In the 1940s, mother earth supported a global population of about 2.5 billion people which has swelled to over 6 billion today and is expected to peak at 9 billion by 2050. After thousands of years the world’s population reached 3 billion, but within a century, the population will treble.

As a result, the per capita availability of arable land, which was 1 acre just a few decades back, will decrease to one third of an acre by 2050. Between 2004 and 2009, the price of basic consumption items such as cereals, pulses and edible oils has doubled, even trebled. Worse, the average price of food crops is set to climb even further—during 2008 to 2017, wheat, maize and skimmed milk powder prices could be higher by 40-60 percent when compared to 1998-2007.

The demand-supply gap for food in India shows that in the short to medium term, supply will meet demand requirements; from 2021 demand will outstrip supply for cereals, pulses, edible oil and sugar. Food commodity prices are likely to be high and volatile for the next 10-15 years.

The daal problem
India is in a precarious situation with pulses in particular. The problem has been worsening gradually and is becoming a silent emergency. Like the proverbial frog in the heating water, all those who ought to be concerned may not be even fully aware of it. Indians will suffer the most if India does not find a way out of the pulses crisis, because other societies do not depend as much as us on pod-bearing plants for proteins. India is the largest producer of pulses in the world, yet it is also the largest importer of pulses. Going from being the largest producer or exporter to becoming the largest importer is not a new experience for this country. In the 1920s, India was among the largest producers and exporters of oil seeds in the world; today we are the largest importer. In the 1950s, India was by far the largest exporter of tea; today Sri Lanka and Kenya have increased their exportable surplus and India’s market share in the global tea trade is significantly lower.

What is the issue on pulses? India is more vegetarian than any other society in the world. Consequently, our dietary dependence on pulses as the main source of protein is enormous. Pulses are also the most economic source of protein. The World Health Organization recommends 80 grams of pluses per person per day and India will consume about 38 million tonnes a year by 2018.

Compare this projected demand with the current Indian production of 15 million tonnes a year and a worldwide production of 55 million tonnes. The contours of the crisis become clear. India would have to double yields or acreage or look at a mix of both.

Why did pulses not follow the pattern of wheat, rice and the green revolution? Pulses in India are traditionally considered to be a residual crop, only suited for growth under rain-fed conditions when one can’t grow wheat or rice. The green revolution saw the country taking great strides in increasing the yields of rice and wheat. Along with this, the government’s procurement policy and strategy helped in the promotion of these cereals. There have been no great technology breakthroughs with respect to pulses. Equally, no aggressive plan, commensurate with the crisis, is in place for pulses.

Canada cultivates pulses for supply to India and singly accounts for 50 percent of our pulses imports. Canadian farmers are encouraged and given subsidies to cultivate pulses. An additional benefit, from the Canadian perspective, is that pulses, being nitrogen-fixing crops, help in furthering the ‘green’ agenda.

At 638 kilos a hectare, India’s pulses yield is way below that of best-in-class countries, which produce about 1,800 kilos a hectare. It’s obvious that inadequate pest and nutrient management have led to lower yields, and then there are issues such as farmer perceptions of risk and cost, the absence of government procurement, lack of high-yielding varieties of seeds, and poor agricultural infrastructure.

While the above points affirm that there is an impending crisis, the climate for improvements in agriculture has never been better. During the last five years, there has been an upturn in fortunes of agriculture (the present rain deficiency is unfortunate) and some credit is due to the government for a supportive policy:

  • There has been high and consistent increase in agricultural production in India over the last few years.
  • The gross fixed capital formation in agriculture has increased.
  • The credit supply position for the farmer has improved.
  • There has been considerable growth in the minimum support price.
  • There has been an improvement in the availability of quality inputs.

Can India achieve a production revolution in pulses? An analysis by the Tata Strategic Management Group has shown that by adopting best practices and increasing yield to the highest levels, India can increase production by 13 million tonnes a year. Additional areas that can be brought under pulses cultivation include existing rice fallows and the hilly reaches of north and northeast India, while intercropping will also increase the area under production. These measures could result in additional production of more than 9 million tonnes a year. India certainly has the potential to produce 37 million tonnes of pulses a year.

We need to understand how countries such Canada achieve three times our yields per acre. We need to adapt their agronomy practices to suit our conditions: soil testing, good seed varieties, integrated pest and nutrition management, irrigation, small-farm mechanization, and deployment of information and communication technologies. We need some government support for prices, procurement and marketing just as was, and is still being, done for cereals.