To Indians of two or three generations ago, food shortages on a massive scale were a reality in a manner that is perhaps difficult to imagine today. For the first two decades of independence, after a century and a half of colonial rule marked by devastating famines, it seemed India could emerge from the physical insufficiency of food supply only at a painfully slow pace. The Green Revolution was to change all that, and in a remarkable turnaround over barely five to six years, Indian agriculture moved on to a path of growth. In five crop seasons, for instance, from 1967 to 1972, wheat production doubled. Today, India is one of the world’s foremost agricultural producers.
In a long term analysis of productivity, defined as value of crop output per unit of acre, Takashi Kurosaki (Japanese economist) estimated that productivity or yield stagnated at -0.01% from 1901 to 1946-47 and then grew by 2.19% per annum from 1947-48 to 2003-04. Looking more carefully at the post-Independence period, JM Rao and S Storm found that wheat yields grew by 1.27% per annum from 1949-50 to 1964-65 (pre-Green Revolution period) and then by 2.55% per annum during 1967-81 (early Green Revolution period) and further accelerated to 3.06% from 1981-91 (late Green Revolution period). While there was a similar trajectory for rice, yields of other crops including nutri-cereals (such as jowar and bajra) and pulses did not increase in the same way.
Alongside the revolution in crop production, other sectors of agriculture and horticulture, such as fruit, vegetables, milk, poultry and egg production and inland fisheries had, in time, their own moment when growth began to take off. For example, the share of fruits and vegetables in total value of crop production soared in the 1990s and 2000s, accounting for almost a quarter of value of agricultural output by the end of the last decade.
It often goes unremarked that this would not have been possible without what is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of 20th century science — the extraordinary development of agricultural science and advances in chemistry and biology that provided the means to feed and clothe the global population for the first time in history. For India, these scientific developments were crucial, especially when the possibility of increasing production by bringing new land into cultivation on a large scale was infeasible. Science provided new high-yielding varieties, chemical fertilizers, and plant protection chemicals that brought agricultural productivity out of virtual stagnation. For a world accustomed to seeing India as the example par excellence of a permanent Malthusian crisis of growth in food supply outstripped by population growth, this was indeed a surprise. Following the Green Revolution, the rate of growth of food grain in India exceeded that of population in the 1980s and 1990s. The new confidence that the Green Revolution brought to the effort of nation building was remarkable, while in agriculture itself, the momentum that it provided held good for several decades.
However, after the introduction of economic liberalization policies in 1991, and particularly post-2000, this momentum has been lost, partly in physical terms of growth rate of production and productivity, but perhaps more significantly in charting a course for the future.
At the core of restoring the momentum in Indian agriculture lies the question of increasing productivity. This is not an option, but a necessity for a number of reasons. Given the size of the Indian population, self-sufficiency in food production, inclusive of crop production as well as other sectors, remains a strategic imperative, even if imports can help smoothen out periodic fluctuations. While specific estimates may vary, India’s population will continue to rise in the coming decades, reaching about 1.7 billion by 2050 and is expected to peak only around 2060.
What is the scale of increase in production that is required? In an authoritative estimate, Panjab Singh, President of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, noted in his address in July 2019, that food grain production alone must increase by 44% over 2018-2019 levels, from 281 million tonnes (mt) to 405 mt by 2050. Such estimates include not only direct consumption needs but also the need for seed, feed, and industrial consumption while taking account of loss and wastage. Vegetable and fruit production in this scenario needs to increase by a substantial 92% and 220%, respectively by 2050. As the area under cultivation continues to decline, given the growth of urban and non-agricultural needs, such an increase in production can come only from rising productivity.
This projected 21st century increase in productivity will also face the challenge of the escalating impact of climate change. This is likely to be a massive burden, even if projections are still dogged by considerable uncertainties. Contrary to the opinion that climate change is already the major fetter on productivity growth, we argue that the evidence presents a different picture.
Two important aspects of the story of productivity in Indian agriculture must be underlined here.
First, while India is the world leader in production in key crops, its productivity ranking has always lagged behind its ranking by cultivated area and production. The case of rice is telling as seen from the Food and Agricultural Organization’s database for 2013. India is the world’s second largest producer, but comes in only at fifth place in productivity, lagging behind not only China, the global leader in production and productivity, but also behind Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh, in that order. In its Price Policy for Kharif Crops Report for 2018-19, the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices notes further that India’s average productivity for paddy (in 2017) is only 2.57 tonnes per hectare (t/ha), below the world average of 4.6 t/ha. Even the state with the highest productivity, Punjab, lags behind the global average, with paddy productivity of 4.36 t/ha. The story is similar across other crops, including minor cereals, pulses and oilseeds. In crops where Indian productivity is higher than world average, it remains below the global leader by a substantial margin. Clearly, there is much room for growth.
Which crops and regions are lagging behind? This takes us to the second point about productivity gaps. Independent analysis by the first author shows that even by the measure of achievable yield across different climatic zones (defined here as the productivity of the highest yielding district in each climatic zone) in the country, there is large room for increase in production with existing acreage, from about 45% in wheat to 95% in paddy. If the gap between average yield in every specified climatic zone and the highest achievable yield in that zone is closed, the potential increase in maize, sorghum, soybean and finger millet production is more than 100%.
Outside of food grain and horticulture production, similar issues of productivity attend milk, meat, fish and egg production. As noted earlier, the projections for 2050 require that production approximately double, though differing bases of assessing nutritional requirements may increase these figures even further.
Last but not least, there are significant differences in cropping pattern and yields, and most importantly, in absolute and relative returns or incomes from farming — between small farmers and peasants and large capitalist farmers. Notwithstanding the laudable political unanimity over the goal of doubling farmers’ income, any strategy for the future will have to pay specific attention to getting the benefits of scale to the mass of small producers.
In its very first report, the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) sharply summed it up, noting that the ‘prevailing gap between potential and actual yields even with the technologies currently on the shelf is very wide’. The NCF was explicit in attributing this shortfall and the present crisis in agriculture to ‘lack of appropriate public policy… as well as adequate investment’. The report urges that the government ‘begin the process of imparting dynamism and optimism to the farm sector, as was done in the 1960s’.
What will it take to impart this dynamism, whose necessity the NCF articulated in an unambiguous fashion more than a decade and a half ago? Clearly, we need to redress the unequal spread of the Green Revolution across regions, crops, and socio-economic classes, which clearly finds expression in the extent and distribution of yield gaps in crop production.
Among the policy interventions that are required to enhance productivity, insulating farmers from international price fluctuations and guaranteeing them a reasonable return on costs are clearly critical. This will involve a combination of policies both to ensure stable and reasonable prices (such as through minimum price support and price stabilization funds) and affordable quality inputs. Large-scale investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure (electrification, roads, godowns and cold storages, agro-processing units) is needed as well as an overhaul of the rural credit system so as to ensure timely credit and insurance to small farmers. What we argue is that the foundation of a jumpstart towards the next level of agricultural productivity lies in the revitalization of agricultural research and extension systems so as to develop the necessary scientific innovations that can be taken to the field.
It is on this question of boosting investment in agricultural science and technology that worrisome trends have appeared both globally and in India. While sustainability, especially in the rational use of inputs, is an essential part of developing productivity, the latter goal cannot be sacrificed in pursuit of the former. Indeed, without the challenge of promoting ecological sustainability and productivity growth simultaneously, sustainable development would be a vacuous slogan. Unfortunately, sections of conservative environmentalist opinion are promoting a vision of ecological constraints in agriculture, that is prepared to restrain productivity growth, even joining the ranks of de-growth enthusiasts. Other variants of such opinion, while concurring with this goal, seek to provide some paltry compensation for lost income growth through so-called “payment for ecosystem services.” Globally, such trends have built upon an earlier wave of pseudo-scientific reaction to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or indeed any kind of technology development in the name of opposing “industrial” agriculture. Such trends have already done serious damage to India’s agenda of agricultural science research.
These older trends have been joined by a new push to underplay the importance of productivity growth, now from the ranks of those concerned with climate change mitigation. While the possibilities of increasing the sequestration of carbon in the soil is undoubtedly a climate mitigation strategy that is important to explore, it cannot come at the expense of productivity growth, in India or in other developing countries. Approaches to crop management practices, such as conservation agriculture or agroecology, are acquiring popularity in mainstream agricultural policy-making as globally valid solutions, when hard scientific evidence from global meta-studies (Pittelkow et al. 2015) shows that their utility is restricted to particular soils, climatic conditions and cropping patterns. Indian agriculture needs to remain the site of climate adaptation and not climate mitigation.
In conclusion, there are large yield gaps in India, relative to potential in the same climatic zone within the country and current levels of productivity worldwide, though the problem is more acute for selected crops, regions and socio-economic groups. With a growing population and requirements for a diversified food basket, fixing agricultural productivity is one of the most urgent tasks for ensuring basic food and nutrition security (as also higher incomes for producers). We would like to argue that the only way to address the problem of raising productivity while taking account of concerns with respect to sustainable use of inputs as well as the effects of climate change (such as growing salinity of the soil or increased variability of temperature), is through investment in scientific research. Before 1990, India had one of the best agricultural research systems in the developing world. We cannot afford to lag behind in the 21st century.
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T JAYARAMAN IS SENIOR FELLOW - CLIMATE CHANGE, MS SWAMINATHAN RESEARCH FOUNDATION AND MADHURA SWAMINATHAN IS CHAIRPERSON, MS SWAMINATHAN RESEARCH FOUNDATION. YOU CAN REACH THE AUTHORS ON TWITTER AT @TJAYARAMAN AND @MSSRF, RESPECTIVELY