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The cry of maiden earth: An emerging crisis

R Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Tata Sons and chairman of Rallis India, talks about the impending global food crisis and solutions for India in a speech addressing the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Agricorp 2009 conference held in Mumbai in September 2009

The title of my speech is inspired by a poignant chapter in a centuries-old Tamil classic called Thirukkural. A couplet in the chapter emphasises that, though laborious, farming is an “excellent activity”, the basis for all trading in the world. Another couplet visualises the earth as a maiden who will cry when she finds lazy and confused people staying idle while pleading poverty. Humankind may have reached that point once again in its history.

I will be making three principal points today:

  • The world is heading for a food shortage.
  • India is gradually getting enmeshed in a pulses crisis.
  • Our capability to respond is positive.
It is important to note that the pulses, or daal, crisis is specific to India. A shortage of pulses can have devastating long-term effects on our national nutritional standards. The prices of pulses have reached astronomical levels this year and the government has, expectedly, expressed deep concern. The rise in prices is not an aberration; rather, it indicates a possible trend. Like with onions, which have on occasion become a critical factor in elections past, pulses could turn into a problem in the future.

The atmosphere and tools for solving this problem are extraordinarily favourable. The ‘belly of India’, comprising Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, accounts for three-fourths of India’s pulses production. There are solutions to bring this belly back to good health and the Bombay Chamber should advocate a plan and work with the government.

The world is heading for a food shortage
At the end of the Second World War, mother earth supported a global population of about 2.5 billion people; today that figure has swelled to over 6 billion and is expected to peak at 9 billion by 2050. It took thousands of years for the world’s population to reach 3 billion, but merely six decades to double in number. As a result, the per capita availability of arable land, which was 1 acre just a few decades back, will decrease to one third of an acre by 2050.

When the world was faced with a looming food crisis after the Second World War, science and public policy stepped in to modernise the ancient practice of agriculture. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization was set up in 1945. The rapid mechanisation of agriculture, the use of crop protection and crop nutrition, and the development of better seeds dramatically enhanced the productivity of farming.

The farming fillip was so successful that, since the 1970s, a new generation has grown up — one to whom food availability and prices are of little concern. This shows in the extravagance of food consumption and wastage. In the United States about 50 per cent of all food produced is thrown away. Britain squanders 20 million tonnes of food each year and the Japanese $100 billion worth of it in the same period. If the affluent nations stop wasting so much food, the world can perhaps manage with current levels of production and, possibly, feed all of its poor everywhere.

The tragedy of food wastage is not restricted to the developed world. A vast amount of food is wasted in India, a big producer of fruits and vegetables. Reducing waste ought to be, in the circumstances, an obvious priority. However, like with free trade and global warming, food is often a victim of negotiations and geopolitics. That may be one reason why scientists are exploring the possibility of growing food in urban skyscrapers through new technologies.

Increasing world population, growth in developing nations and rapid urbanisation are spurring higher demand for food. Juxtapose this reality with the impact of climate change on agriculture, land degradation leading to uncertainty about crop yields, and the dwindling availability of arable land. According to the United Nations, the land available for agriculture across the world could decline in productivity by up to 25 per cent during this century. And now, for the first time in 35 years, the global demand for food will outstrip supply. Our food stocks are falling.

Between 2004 and 2009, the price of basic consumption items such as cereals, pulses, sugar, tea, milk, vegetables and edible oils have doubled, even trebled. Worse, the average price of food crops is certain to climb even further. The cost of wheat, maize and skimmed milk powder could be higher by 40-60 per cent in the 2008-2017 period when compared with 1998-2007, by 30 per cent for raw and white sugar, by more than 60 per cent for butter and oilseeds, and in excess of 80 per cent for vegetable oils. According to a report drafted for ministers of the G8 nations, the world faces “a permanent food crisis and global instability unless countries act now to feed a surging population by doubling agricultural output”.

The demand-supply gap for food in India shows that although in the short to medium term, supply will meet demand requirements, in the long run (2021 onwards) demand will outstrip supply for cereals, pulses, edible oil and sugar. A study conducted by the Tata Department of Economics and Statistics affirms that the trend on food commodity prices will be high and volatile for the next 10-15 years.

India is getting enmeshed in a pulses crisis
Agriculture and food are subjects of vital significance. In the limited time available, I wish to focus on just one food group, pulses, which is crucial to India but of miniscule interest to the rest of the world.

India is in a precarious situation with pulses. The problem has been worsening gradually and is becoming a silent emergency, like the proverbial frog in the heating water, and all of those who ought to be concerned may not be even fully aware of it. Indians will suffer the most if India does not find a way out of the pulses crisis, because other societies do not depend as much as we do on pod-bearing plants for proteins.

India is the largest producer of pulses in the world, yet it is also the largest importer of pulses. Going from being the largest producer or exporter to becoming the largest importer is not a new experience for this country. In the 1920s, India was among the largest producers and exporters of oil seeds in the world; today we are the largest importer. In the 1950s, India was by far the largest exporter of tea; today Sri Lanka and Kenya have increased their exportable surplus and India’s market share in the global tea trade is significantly lower.

What is the issue on pulses? India is more vegetarian than any other society in the world. Consequently, our dietary dependence on pulses as the main source of protein is enormous. Pulses are the most economic source of protein. The World Health Organization recommends 80 grams of pulses per person per day and India will consume about 38 million tonnes a year by 2018. Compare this projected demand with the current Indian production of 15 million tonnes a year and a worldwide production of 55 million tonnes. The contours of the crisis become clear. India would have to double yields or acreage or look at a mix of both.

Why did pulses not follow the pattern of wheat, rice and the green revolution? Pulses in India are traditionally considered to be a residual crop, only suited for growth under rain-fed conditions when one can’t grow wheat or rice. The green revolution saw the country taking great strides in increasing the yields of rice and wheat. Along with this, the government’s procurement policy and strategy helped in the promotion of these cereals. There have been no great technology breakthroughs with respect to pulses. Equally, no aggressive plan, commensurate with the crisis, is in place for pulses.

Canada cultivates pulses for supply to India and singly accounts for 50 per cent of our pulses imports. Canadian farmers are encouraged and given subsidies to cultivate pulses. An additional benefit, from the Canadian perspective, is that pulses, being nitrogen-fixing crops, help in furthering the ‘green’ agenda.At 638kgs a hectare, India’s pulses yield is way below that of best-in-class countries, which produce about 1,800kgs a hectare. It’s obvious that inadequate pest and nutrient management have led to lower yields, and then there are issues such as farmer perceptions of risk and cost, the absence of government procurement, lack of high-yielding varieties of seeds, and poor agricultural infrastructure.

Our capability to respond is positive
While the above points affirm that there is an impending crisis, the climate for agriculture has never been better. There has been a turn in fortunes for agriculture — quietly and unknowingly — and some credit is due to the government for a supportive policy:
There has been high and consistent increase in agricultural production in India over the last few years.
The gross fixed capital formation in agriculture has increased.
The credit supply position for the farmer has improved.
There has been considerable growth in the minimum support price.
There has been an improvement in the availability of quality inputs.

Can India achieve a production revolution in pulses? An analysis by the Tata Strategic Management Group has shown that by adopting best practices and increasing yield to the highest levels, India can increase production by 13 million tonnes a year. Additional areas that can be brought under pulses cultivation include existing rice fallows and the hilly reaches of north and northeast India, while intercropping will also increase the area under production. These measures could result in additional production of more than 9 million tonnes a year. India certainly has the potential to produce 37 million tonnes of pulses a year.

The MoPu plan
Tata has pooled the resources of its Department of Economics and Statistics, the Tata Strategic Management Group and its operating companies Rallis, Tata Chemicals and Tata Consultancy Services to study India’s pulses problem. With the guidance of noted economist YK Alagh, chairman of the Institute of Rural Management Anand, former union minister and member of the Planning Commission, a broad plan called Tata MoPu — which stands for ‘more pulses’ — has been developed. Tata is proposing to create a knowledge exchange website in pulses, www.growmorepulses.com, which will be a community to inform the many, connect the engaged and excite the passionate.

The Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry is well placed to highlight the pulses crisis to the government. With companies and enterprises involved in seeds and fertilizers, crop protection, farm mechanisation and micro-irrigation under its umbrella, the Chamber can work with the government and promote a more focused, mission-mode, national programme for pulses with a solid public-private partnership.

We need to understand how countries such as Canada achieve three times our yields per acre. We need to adapt their agronomy practices to suit our conditions: soil testing, good seed varieties, integrated pest and nutrition management, irrigation, small-farm mechanisation, and deployment of information and communication technologies. We need some government support for prices, procurement and marketing just as was, and is still being, done for cereals.

I would like to encourage participants to apply their mind and come up with innovative solutions that can help India overcome the twin challenges of increasing food production and, specifically, the cultivation of pulses.

While rummaging in my library, I reconnected with a book published by Oxford and IBH Publishing entitled “Pulse Production and Opportunities”. It contained the proceedings of a symposium organised by Hindustan Lever Research Foundation in 1982.

Dr Ashok Ganguly, the company chairman and a former Bombay Chamber president, had said in his welcome address, “….pulse is such an important integral part of the diet…that unless major steps are taken, we will contribute to calorie malnutrition as well as amino acid deficiencies….”
I am sobered that I am repeating the same message in 2009.
I request the Bombay Chamber to undertake a positive programme of advocacy on what is undoubtedly a vital agenda for food and nutrition.

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