Agriculture matters and matters even more

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PURVI MEHTA-BHATT

South Asia, India in particular, hosts nearly one fourth of the world’s farmers and possess 48% of world’s arable land feeding 1.2 billion of its own and many other people across the borders by exporting agriculture produces. While the country has made significant strides in many off farm sectors (service sector, industrial production etc.), agriculture continues to be the lifeline of the country, especially for the 64% Indians living in rural areas.Anything we say about Indian agriculture, the opposite also stands true.

The agriculture sector of India, in some areas, is highly industrialized but by and large remains small holder driven, low input, low output system that holds tremendous potential. Agriculture also continues to remain the only sector that has a direct combined impact on poverty, rural livelihoods, health and nutrition.

At the time of India’s independence in 1947, the country was referred to have a ‘ship to mouth’ existence, where majority of the population was dependent on foreign food aid and imports. With the advent of green revolution that manifested the power of technologies and policies, India achieved self-sufficiency in food. Several efforts, including white revolution and a combination of technologies and strategies have not only kept India food sufficient but has also made it a net exporter of food.

Today, India is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses; second largest producer of rice, wheat, fruits, vegetables and overall third largest producer of food grains.

The gratifying achievements of Indian agriculture remains challenged by some unsolved, un-addressed issues of malnutrition (ironically mostly among people dependent on agriculture for livelihoods), low productivity and limited income benefits to farmers.

Bridging the gap between potential and actual and that of market demand and supply remains a challenge that can be addressed only by bringing in nuance in agriculture. Agriculture, especially in an agrarian country like India, is a complex phenomenon. There are no silver bullets and no perfect model to serve agriculture sector but generally, if there are two best bets, they are, right technologies and right policies.

In the process of our thrust on development and options to achieve that, we have underestimated and underutilized the power of these two extremely important tools boxes, one that contains technological tools (transgenic technologies like salinity and drought tolerant crops,  that can potentially help convert large unproductive and coastal land to produce food; bio fortification technologies that will make sure that the people not only get food but also nutrition; post-harvest technologies that will save over 37% of food that gets lost post production and before reaching the consumers).

Policies that will be conducive towards technology development, dissemination and extending the benefits of India’s growth story to the millions of farmers who remain immune to the growth.

The story of farming in India, is not about growing crops or raising livestock; it is a combination of these two. 80% of the milk in India comes from such ‘mixed’ farming systems, over 60% of livestock depend on crop residues for their feed and over 90% of the small holder farmers are neither crop or livestock farmers, they are ‘mixed’ farmers who depend on and mitigate their risk between their small piece of land and 1-2 livestocks.

Every year, a very large number of ‘impatient’ Indian farmers leave agriculture for off farm jobs; often leaving agriculture to women farmers who play an extremely important (yet mostly unrecognized) role in farming. The ‘Optimists’ look for a polio like, multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder, multidimensional campaign that for agriculture addresses the issue from multiple angles.

In view of the importance and coexistence of several growth trajectories, we will have to respond to the rapid growth in agriculture while being responsible towards a very large number of small holder farmers who remain immune to the high growth trajectories and continue to depend on subsistence farming as an important, and often the only, source for livelihood.

(Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

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