India — With the right technology and policies, India could help feed the world. Instead, it can barely feed itself.
Wheat is harvested in Punjab, where water has become a top concern.
India’s supply of arable land is second only to that of the United States, its economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, and its industrial innovation is legendary. But when it comes to agriculture, its output lags far behind potential. For some staples, India must turn to already stretched international markets, exacerbating a global food crisis.
It was not supposed to be this way.
Forty years ago, a giant development effort known as the Green Revolution drove hunger from an India synonymous with famine and want. Now, after a decade of neglect, this country is growing faster than its ability to produce more rice and wheat.
The problem has grown so dire that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for a Second Green Revolution “so that the specter of food shortages is banished from the horizon once again.”
And while Mr. Singh worries about feeding the poor, India’s growing affluent population demands not only more food but also a greater variety.
Today Indian agriculture is a double tragedy. “Both in rice and wheat, India has a large untapped reservoir. It can make a major contribution to the world food crisis,” said M. S. Swaminathan, a plant geneticist who helped bring the Green Revolution to India.
India’s own people are paying as well. Farmers, most subsisting on small, rain-fed plots, are disproportionately poor, and inflation has soared past 11 percent, the highest in 13 years.
Experts blame the agriculture slowdown on a variety of factors.
The Green Revolution introduced high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, expanded the use of irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers, and transformed the northwestern plains into India’s breadbasket. Between 1968 and 1998, the production of cereals in India more than doubled.
But since the 1980s, the government has not expanded irrigation and access to loans for farmers, or to advance agricultural research. Groundwater has been depleted at alarming rates.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington says changes in temperature and rain patterns could diminish India’s agricultural output by 30 percent by the 2080s.
Family farms have shrunk in size and quantity, and a few years ago mounting debt began to drive some farmers to suicide. Now many find it more profitable to sell their land to developers of industrial buildings.
Among farmers who stay on their land, many are experimenting with growing high-value fruits and vegetables that prosperous Indians are craving, but there are few refrigerated trucks to transport their produce to modern supermarkets.
A long and inefficient supply chain means that the average farmer receives less than a fifth of the price the consumer pays, a World Bank study found, far less than farmers in, say, Thailand or the United States.
Surinder Singh Chawla knows the system is broken. Mr. Chawla, 62, bore witness to the Green Revolution — and its demise.
Once, his family grew wheat and potatoes on 20 acres. They looked to the sky for rains. They used cow manure for fertilizer. Then came the Mexican semi-dwarf wheat seedlings that the revolution helped introduce to India. Mr. Chawla’s wheat yields soared. A few years later, the same happened with new high-yield rice seeds.
Increasingly prosperous, Mr. Chawla finally bought his first tractor in 1980.
But he has since witnessed with horror the ills the revolution wrought: in a common occurrence here, the water table under his land has sunk by 100 feet over three decades as he and other farmers irrigated their fields.
By the 1980s, government investment in canals fed by rivers had tapered off, and wells became the principal source of irrigation, helped by a shortsighted government policy of free electricity to pump water.
Here in Punjab, more than three-fourths of the districts extract more groundwater than is replenished by nature.
Between 1980 and 2002, the government continued to heavily subsidize fertilizers and food grains for the poor, but reduced its total investment in agriculture. Public spending on farming shrank by roughly a third, according to an analysis of government data by the Center for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi.
Today only 40 percent of Indian farms are irrigated. “When there is no water, there is nothing,” Mr. Chawla said.
And he sees more trouble on the way. The summers are hotter than he remembers. The rains are more fickle. Last summer, he wanted to ease out of growing rice, a water-intensive crop. The gains of the Green Revolution have begun to ebb in other countries, too, like Indonesia and the Philippines, agriculture experts say. But the implications in India are greater because of its sheer size.India raised a red flag two years ago about how heavily the appetites of its 1.1 billion people would weigh on world food prices. For the first time in many years, India had to import wheat for its grain stockpile. In two years it bought about 7 million tons.
Today, two staples of the Indian diet are imported in ever-increasing quantities because farmers cannot keep up with growing demand — pulses, like lentils and peas, and vegetable oils, the main sources of protein and calories, respectively, for most Indians.
“India could be a big actor in supplying food to the rest of the world if the existing agricultural productivity gap could be closed,” said Adolfo Brizzi, manager of the South Asia agriculture program at the World Bank in Washington. “When it goes to the market to import, it typically puts pressure on international market prices, and every time India goes for export, it increases the supply and therefore mitigates the price levels.”
In April, in a village called Udhopur, not far from here, Harmail Singh, 60, wondered aloud how farmers could possibly be expected to grow more grain.
“The cultivable land is shrinking and government policies are not farmer friendly,” he said as he supervised his wheat harvest. “Our next generation is not willing to work in agriculture. They say it is a losing proposition.”
The luckiest farmers make more money selling out to land-hungry mall developers.
Gurmeet Singh Bassi, 33, blessed with a farm on the edges of a booming Punjabi city called Ludhiana, sold off most of his ancestral land. Its value had grown more than fivefold in two years. He made enough to buy land in a more remote part of the state and hire laborers to till it.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chawla’s neighbors migrated to North America. They were happy to lease their land to him, if he was foolish enough to stay and work it, he said. Today, he cultivates more than 100 acres.
Last year, on a small patch of that land, he planted what no one in his village could imagine putting on their plate: baby corn, which he learned was being lapped up by upscale urban Indian restaurants and even sold abroad.
At the time, baby corn brought a better profit than the government’s price for his wheat crop.
This had been the Green Revolution’s other pillar — a fixed government price for grain. A farmer could sell his crop to a private trader, but for many small tillers, it was far easier to approach the nearest government granary, and accept their rate.
For years, those prices remained miserably low, farmers and their advocates complained, and there was little incentive for farmers to invest in their crop. “For farmers,” said Mr. Swaminathan, the plant geneticist, “a remunerative price is the best fertilizer.”
Mr. Swaminathan’s adage proved true this year. After two years of having to import wheat, the government offered farmers a substantially higher price for their grain: farmers not only planted slightly more wheat but also sold much more of their harvest to the state. As a result, by May, the country’s buffer stocks were at record levels.
Nanda Kumar, India’s most senior bureaucrat for food, said the country would not need to buy wheat on the world market this year. That is good news, for India and the world, but how long it will remain the case is unclear.
Will greater demand for food and higher market prices enrich farmers, eventually, encouraging them to stay on their land? There is potential, but other conditions, like India’s inefficient transportation and supply chains, would have to improve too.
How to address these challenges is a matter of debate.
From one quarter comes pressure to introduce genetically modified crops with greater yields; from another come lawsuits to stop it. And from yet another come pleas to mount a greener Green Revolution.
Alexander Evans, author of a recent paper on food prices published by Chatham House, a British research institution, said: “This time around, it needs to be more efficient in its use of water, in its use of energy, in its use of fertilizer and land.”
Mr. Swaminathan wants to dedicate villages to sowing lentils and oilseeds, to meet demand. The World Bank, meanwhile, favors high-value crops, like Mr. Chawla’s baby corn, because they allow farmers to maximize their income from small holdings.
The market may yet help India. Mr. Chawla, for instance, has replaced baby corn with sunflowers, prompted by the high price of sunflower oil. For the same reason, he is also considering planting more wheat.