India's worsening food security

23.01.2017

Statistics of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) indicate that between 1990-92 and 2011-13, India's per capita food production fell by 35%, while food available for consumption (measured in kilocalories per person per day) declined from 165 to 109.

Recent reports indicate that India's food security buffer stock of wheat has fallen from 26.9 million tonne in December 2015 to 16.5 million tonne in December 2016.

In the wake of this situation, the Government of India has lifted wheat import duty, paving the way for costly wheat imports. Such a situation was predicted by many. For example, in 2009, vice-chancellors of Indian agricultural universities, gathered at Karnal, had sounded the alarm bells about India being on the brink of becoming a foodgrain-importing country. Apparently, these warnings were ignored by both the central and state governments. However, India cannot afford to ignore food security because of the passage of the Right to Food Bill by the Parliament and to keep the 'ship-to-mouth existence' of the 1960s a thing of the past.

Reasons for this situation are several, including low investment in agricultural research and development (R&D), poor grainstorage facilities, climate change and ever-increasing human population.

According to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report for 2008, India's allocation for total research and development (R&D) was just 0.8% of its gross domestic product (GDP) compared with China's 1.2% and United States' 2.7%. According to FAO reports, while agriculture's value-added share of GDP for 2009-11 was 1.2% (US), 10% (China) and 17.2% (India), expenditure on agriculture as percentage of agricultural GDP was 14.6% (US), 2.3% (China) and 6.4% (India). Thus, even though the contribution of agriculture to total GDP in the US was small as compared with India's, US expenditure on agriculture (% of agricultural GDP) was substantially higher than that of India. Agricultural growth cannot be achieved and new technology cannot be developed without proper investment in agricultural R&D. Agricultural universities that helped usher in the 'Green Revolution' in India are poorly funded and 'faculty inbreeding' is the norm.

While India has more than 20 crore people who are 'food-insecure', modern facilities for storage (silos) of foodgrains (wheat and rice) are inadequate. Some estimates suggest that as much as 20% foodgrains are wasted annually. Foodgrains are left in 'mandis' in the open for months and are mostly stored unscientifically (in cover and plinth (CAP) storage). These foodgrains are vulnerable to weather elements and pests - six rats can eat foodgrains equivalent to one person's intake. Such wastage of foodgrains is essentially waste of our precious and scarce resources, such as water. The government must make provisions for scientific storage of foodgrains for the sake of food security. The cost of a silo with 10-lakh-tonne storage capacity is estimated to be around '600-700 crore. India must invest in silos to protect the country's food security and, in turn, its dignity. Food security is in the domain of the Centre. Thus, it becomes its responsibility to build grain-storage silos and sufficiently fund research at agricultural universities.

There is a correlation between the amount of rainfall and foodgrain production. India's food production is uncertain from year to year because of erratic rainfall patterns. The largest amount of foodgrains that India has been able to produce is about 265 million tonne in 2013-14. By 2050, the country will need to double its foodgrain production, which will be an uphill task in the face of erratic rainfall and dwindling natural resources (water and arable land). Climate change will exacerbate the situation by enhancing the frequency of droughts and pushing additional land under salinity. India's carbon dioxide emissions, which cause global warming, have gone up by 25% between 1990 and 2013. Strategies for combating climate change (both mitigation and adaptation) are needed to improve crop production.

The government seems to have forgotten about the population growth aspect. Every year, India's population increases by about 1.5 crore people, who are to be fed, clothed, and otherwise provided for. By 2050, India's population is expected to reach 1.7 billion. Appropriate innovative steps, in line with democratic principles, must be taken to slow down population growth.

Farmers must be given just compensation for their produce so that they can stay solvent. For that, recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers chaired by Prof MS Swaminathan must be implemented. Prof Swaminathan has issued this stern warning to the nation: "We are on the verge of a disaster. We will be in serious difficulty if agriculture and farmers are neglected and food productivity is not increased." Both the central and state governments will do well to put their money where their mouth is - agriculture!


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