In farm debate, missing R&D

India needs low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without science and technology.

In the current debate on agricultural reforms, an important aspect has been forgotten — the role of agricultural R&D in supporting the farming systems. Supposing farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western UP, who are in the forefront of the current agitation, had alternative crops that could replace rice and wheat or both and were as remunerative as the two cereal crops, would they be braving the cold and COVID-19? The answer is they would have already moved on.

The current debates are mainly on minimum support price, reducing farmers’ debt liabilities, reducing post-harvest losses, cash transfers to keep farming viable for the smallholders, and marketing reforms. Very little attention is being given to reducing the natural resource inputs — most critical being water —and agricultural R&D. India and many other parts of the world with entrenched poverty require low-input, high-output agriculture; low input in terms of both natural resources and monetary inputs. This cannot be achieved without science and technology.

Agriculture inputs that can be estimated in monetary terms are irrigation, tilling and harvesting, fertilizers, agrochemicals and seeds. India receives around 4,000 billion cubic meters (bcm) of rainfall, but a large part of it falls in the east. Moreover, most of the rain is received within 100 hours of torrential downpour, making water storage and irrigation critical for agriculture. India has one of the highest water usages for agriculture in the world — of the total 761 bcm withdrawals of water, 688 bcm (90.5 per cent) goes into agriculture leaving 17 bcm (1.2 per cent) for industry and 56 bcm for municipal use. In comparison, China uses 385.2 bcm (64.4 per cent) out of the total withdrawals of 598.1 bcm for agriculture. Their per-unit land productivity in terms of crop production is almost two to three times more.

The total estimated groundwater depletion in India is in the range of 122-199 bcm as calculated from the observation wells (1996-2016) and satellite data (2002-2016). The depletion is highest in Punjab, Haryana, and western UP. Why are farmers from these regions still insisting on continuing with the wheat-rice cycle? The fact is that agricultural research has neither provided alternative, equally remunerative crops nor farming systems that would reduce natural resource inputs.

Wheat and rice are exceptionally high-yielding crops, the third being hybrid maize. Years of intense research on yield increase and yield protection by breeding varieties and hybrids resistant to pests and pathogens has made these crops stable high yielders. Maize can be a replacement for rice — however, maize is used as livestock and poultry feed. Due to low purchasing power amongst the poor, the demand for maize is not as extensive in India as in the western world and east Asia. I have often heard environmentalists suggest replacing rice with coarse grain crops — millets, sorghum etc. Currently, these crops are pushed to the most marginal dryland areas. However, the yields of these crops are not comparable to those of wheat and rice even when protective irrigation is available. These crops have a serious R&D deficit leading to low yield potential as well as losses to pests and pathogens.

This leaves us with pulses and oilseeds. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, India imported around Rs 76,000 crore worth of edible oils. Three oilseed crops (mustard, soybean, and groundnut) are already grown very extensively. Soybean and groundnut are legume crops and fix their nitrogen. All three crops not only provide edible oils but are also an excellent source of protein-rich seed or seed meal for livestock and poultry. Unfortunately, yields of the three crops are stagnating in India at around 1.1 tons per hectare, significantly lower than the global averages. Even if we grow these crops in Punjab, Haryana, and western UP, diseases and pests tend to negatively impact any yield gains.

In evolutionary biology, the interaction between pests/pathogens and their hosts at the gene or the organism level has been described as the great “arms race”. The host evolves defences against a pathogen, which goes under intense selection pressure for the emergence of a mechanism that would overcome the host defences. Just as human beings are vulnerable to some major pests and pathogens, every crop has enemies — viruses, bacteria, fungi, oomycetes, nematodes, insects and large herbivores, weeds, even parasitic plants. One way is to let the “arms race” run its course. The other way, a hallmark of the human species, is to use accumulated knowledge.

Pests and pathogens can be best tackled by agrochemicals or by genetic interventions. Total pesticide consumption at the global level has increased from 2.4 million tonnes in 1990 to about 4 million tonnes in 2011; thereafter, the consumption is steady. The flattening of the curve reflects the use of some new generation of molecules that are effective in lesser quantities. A recent global level study on crop losses in the main food security hotspots for five major crops showed significant losses to pests — on average for wheat 21.5 per cent, rice 20 per cent, maize 22.5 per cent, potato 17.2 per cent, and soybean 21.4 per cent. Losses in the low yield areas are more as farmers cannot afford the cost of pesticides.

India is one of the lowest users of pesticides. In 2014, comparative use of pesticides in kilograms per hectare in some select countries/regions is as following: Africa 0.30, India 0.36, EU countries 3.09, China 14.82, and Japan 15.93. A study conducted to estimate the yield losses to weeds between 2003-2014 by the All India Coordinated Research Project on Weed Management has revealed losses between 14 and 36 per cent, with soybean and groundnut showing the highest losses — more than 30 per cent. Estimated yield losses due to weeds alone are around Rs 80,000 crore annually.

A more benign method for dealing with pests is through breeding. The Green Revolution technologies were based on the effective use of germplasm and strong phenotypic selections. Astounding developments in molecular biology in the early second half of the 20th century and their translation into recombinant DNA technologies since the 1970s have brought forth unprecedented opportunities for genetic improvement of crops. Since 2000, genomes of all the major crops have been sequenced. More recently, primary germplasm and the wild relatives of the major crops have also been sequenced. The big challenge is in the effective utilisation of the enormous sequence data that is available. India’s efforts in all three areas are half-hearted. There is currently a virtual paralysis on the use of genetic engineering and gene editing technologies.

Investments in R&D in general are low. Over the last 20 years, India has been spending between 0.7 to 0.8 per cent of its GDP on R&D, way below the percentage of GDP spent by the developing countries and Asia’s rapidly growing economies. There are structural issues like lack of competent human resources and lack of policy clarity. However, the biggest impediment to agricultural R&D has been overzealous opposition to the new technologies from ideologues of the left and right.

Maybe the present crisis would lead to a greater appreciation of the need for strong public supported R&D in agriculture.

The writer is a former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi

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