As population grows rapidly, dip in food cultivation causes concern

For all their wrappings, projections based on studies and surveys do have a value proposition -  both for academics as well as policy formulations.

These studies provide both the academic and policy makers a chance to build scenarios and create models. They also alert on impending challenges and caution on level of preparedness.

The agricultural outlook 2012-2021 report prepared by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and released on July 11 carry some projections that require attention, and care by policy makers.

It says global agricultural production is slowing down – from 2 per cent per annum over the past several decades it is likely to dwindle to 1.7 per cent per annum over the next decade. “Growing resource constraints, environmental pressures, and higher costs for some inputs are anticipated to inhibit supply in virtually all regions,” the report says recommending “more attention be paid to increasing sustainable agricultural productivity growth.”

The trends in India pretty much confirm the findings. The growth performance of the agriculture sector has been fluctuating across the five year plans. Reaching an impressive growth rate of 4.8 per cent during the eighth plan (1992–97), agriculture saw a downturn towards the beginning of the ninth plan (1997–2002) and the tenth plan period (2002–07), when the growth rate climbed down to 2.5 per cent and 2.4 per cent respectively. This crippling growth rate of 2.4 percent in agriculture as against a robust annual average overall growth rate of 7.6 per cent for the economy during the tenth plan period was clearly a cause for concern. 

The 2012-21 report clearly marks population to be a major challenge to agriculture sector – a whopping 680 million addition to our population by 2021 will mean we need more feed to fuel lives. India and Africa with the fastest population growth rates shall be the worst hit.

While as of 2011-12, the food security scenario in India is far from grim – sitting pretty at a record 250 million tonnes – in the long run, this may seem a bit of a challenge.

For the long term, the report raises significant concerns – and we in India too must take note of this, and requires immediate attention of policy formulators. “Agricultural production needs to increase by 60 per cent over the next 40 years to meet the rising demand for food. This translates into an additional 1 Bnt of cereals and 200 Mt of meat a year by 2050 compared with 2005-07 levels. Additional production will also be necessary to provide feedstock for expanding biofuel production.”

Growing need

This is a tough ask especially given the constraints – the outlook projects total arable land to increase by only 69 Mha (less than 5 per cent) by 2050. It prescribes: “Additional projections will need to come from increased productivity in the same way as it has for the past 50 years…there is a growing need to improve the sustainable use of available land, water, marine ecosystems, fish stocks, forests and biodiversity. Some 25 per cent of all agricultural land is highly degraded…Measures to reduce loss and waste are also key to meeting rising demand and improving productivity in the supply chain.”

Our policy makers are aware of these compelling challenges and some of the remarkable initiatives aimed at addressing short-term challenges have met with good success. For instance, the ambitious National Food Security Mission launched in 2007 with an outlay of Rs 4,883 crore has not only achieved its targets and spent the money allocated but have also addressed output of wheat, rice and pulses in 480 districts in 18 states. The record output at 250 m tonnes is also attributed to this. Similarly, the macro management of agricultural scheme – an initiative to streamline funding to states – too has yielded impressive results. The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana aimed at spurring growth in the sector through additional investments too has been above par as per government records.

While in short run these programmes may have achieved part success, in the long run, we need a macro strategy which addresses concerns raised by the outlook and echoed by the head of OECD Angel Gurria who said recently, “It’s mostly going to be about productivity,” adding, “It’s a pretty tough challenge because the endowment of resources is limited and we haven’t been very wise.”

Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar noted in his ICAR foundation day address on July 16 the great expectations that lie ahead: “The public sector research today is facing a huge challenge of increasing the long-term productivity of agriculture and food industry, while maintaining and enhancing the natural resource base on which rural agricultural economy is currently dependent. Many global research organisations (public and private) have sensed the need for next generation technologies.

To advance pro-poor agricultural R&D, it is required that both, the private and public sector research and development organizations, focus on pooling resources and work collaboratively for harnessing the synergies; to lead to desired initiatives on intensive agriculture researches for next generation technologies.”

Next generation technologies in agriculture will hold the key for the future of agriculture in India.

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