Future of Pulses and Oilseed Production

The article is authored by Mr. Raju Barwale, Managing Director, Mahyco. It was published in January edition of Agriculture Today as a thought opinion)

India lost a great visionary, scientist and ?The People?s President?, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam recently. Dr. Kalam, always believed in knowledge sharing and teaching, and was a vehement proponent of the use of science and technology in making our country one of the top five, most developed and powerful countries in the world.

Dr. Kalam, in his ?India Vision 2020? document, had laid down five key focus areas for achieving this mission, with Agriculture being the first of those five pillars. His main vision for the Agriculture sector was to improve and double the current production levels of both agriculture and food processing in the country, through scientific research on key crops which he believed would help us attain long term food security. During his visit to ICRISAT Centre in Hyderabad in 2013, Dr. Kalam stressed on research in agriculture biotechnology to enhance agriculture productivity.

According to a recent United Nations Report, India is expected to surpass the population of China to be the most populous country of the world by 2022. This only brings into attention the challenge of feeding such a large population with nutritious and healthy food. We also need to be mindful that the future generations would be more educated, aware and health conscious, with fast changing lifestyles and rapid urbanization. The increase in population and changing per capita income will put a huge pressure on our agricultural production, both in terms of composition and quantity. If we believe the estimates of the CII-McKinsey report on changing Indian food consumption patterns published in 2013 and the Vision 2030 document of ICAR, we would need 345 million tons of agricultural production and would need more of fruits, vegetables and complex proteins of animal and vegetable origin.

To meet such high food demands in the next few years, it will be imperative for us to produce more nutritionally-rich food to keep our people healthy and fit. While India is self-reliant in a few crops, mostly cereals, and also exporting to others countries through a huge impetus received from the first green revolution almost fifty years ago and thereafter the hybrid revolution changing the face of our agriculture sector boosting the production through improved techniques and technologies in the field, there is still enough to be done to improve our productivity in key crops. We still rely on imports for crops such as pulses and oilseeds, where production has not kept pace with demand from a burgeoning population. With better employment opportunities coupled with higher disposable incomes, the demand for nutritious food especially pulses and vegetables are going up dramatically as they remain the primary source of nutrition and protein for a large part of India?s population.

Production of pulses, however, is not meeting the current demand and the country has been relying on imports of large quantity of pulses to fulfil the demand. Although we are the largest producer of pulses in the world, we are unable to meet the demand creating a huge demand-supply gap. The situation is so grim that recently our honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, drew the attention of the nation and its farmers to the mounting large import bill on its account and urged the farmers to grow more and more pulses. For the record, India imports around 3.5 million tonnes of pulses annually from various countries.

According to the Indian Institute of Pulses Research?s (IIPR) Vision 2050 document, about 24 to 25 million hectares of land is under pulses cultivation in India producing about 19 million tons of pulses annually. The yield (around 780kg a hectare) therefore, is far less than the global average and the per capita availability is one-fifth lower than what the nutritionists recommend. This despite the fact that pulses are generally grown post-monsoon and are not a water-guzzling crop like say rice. The same vision document states that by 2050 India would need to produce about 39 million tonnes of pulses to meet its internal demand.

This translates to, a projected annual growth rate of 2.14%, at an average yield of about 1200 kg per hectare besides adding about 3 to 5 million hectares under pulses production. The growth of pulses production has largely been stagnant which has only compounded the problems of availability leading to increasing prices and large imports thereby taking this key nutritional ingredient away from the reach of the common man. Apart from production woes, we are also having to battle policy incentives skewed towards growing cereals, poor irrigational infrastructure and crop loss due to pest attacks which are difficult to overcome through conventional methods of breeding, etc.

The BT cotton case study and how it can be replicated in pulses In such a scenario, agriculture research backed by science and technology is critical for India to address these concerns. The technology intervention resulting in the first green revolution has been well told. We have to usher in the second green revolution now to make India the leading producer of major crops and vegetables, to not only make the country self-sufficient in food, but also export to other countries and help increase the agriculture sector?s share in the economic growth of the nation. Dr. Ashok Gulati, renowned Agricultural Economist and Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) has also highlighted the urgent need for revolutionary methods to dramatically boost food supply for the nation’s 1.2 billion people.

Apart from various inputs required for a desired productivity in farm, seed is one of the most critical inputs, which play an important role in the overall productivity of the crops. Although it forms only a minor proportion of the total cost of inputs in the farming, it plays an important role in determining the final output and productivity of the crop. High quality seeds can help the farmer produce a better and healthier crop which will result in higher yields and improved profits. Developing high quality seeds with resistance / tolerance to pests, diseases and various abiotic stresses involves collaborative efforts of various functions and organisations.

Apart from developing such high quality seeds, one has to ensure that they reach the farmers and farmers are educated to use them with appropriate cultivation practices. From amongst the available agriculture research technologies, biotechnology, which is also popularly known as genetically modified (GM) crops, has proved to be a successful in overcoming many farming challenges globally in recent years. GM crops have been proven to significantly improve yield through high levels of tolerance to diseases and pests, improved weed management, tolerance to abiotic stresses, etc. To quote the leading global agri-biotech industry ISAAA?s report of 2014 which states that? a record 18 million farmers in 28 countries planted more than 181 million hectares in 2014, more than 100-fold increase in area from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 181 million hectares in 2014.? In India too, we have a good example of biotechnology helping to improve crop productivity significantly.

Bt cotton, India?s first and only GM crops so far is a great example of successful technology introduction in agriculture and the potential offered by this technology to our agriculture sector. Since the introduction of Bt Cotton in 2002, both the area and productivity of cotton have grown significantly making India the largest producer of cotton in the world. According to the Cotton Advisory Board?s (CAB) March 2015 estimates for last season?s production, our cotton production reached 390 lakh bales for the last crop year (2014) from 136 lakh bales in 2002. Lint productivity per hectare exceeded 500kgs from a low of 300 kgs of lint per hectare. India has become a net exporter of cotton from being an importer prior to Bt cotton introduction.

We need to replicate the success of Bt cotton in pulses and we have the capabilities to do so with increased focus on research and development in this area. There are many who have taken initiatives to collaborate with public institutions to deploy biotechnology in pulse crops. One of our group companies has partnered with Assam Agricultural University to develop insect resistant Chick pea. Chickpea is the major pulse constituting close to 40% of total pulses production in the India. We produced about 9.88 million Mt of Chickpea in a cultivated area of 10.22 million hectare during last year at an average yield of about 967 Kg per ha. Pod borer is the major insect impacting the crop productivity of Chickpea, upto even 90% in severe cases.

The insect resistant Bt chickpea technology aims to reduce losses caused by pod borer pests, and thereby improve the production of pulses significantly. Trials in the green house and open field conditions have been very positive showing an average yield increase of 25%. If we extrapolate these results, Bt Chickpea has the potential to increase the annual production of Chickpea by at least 2 million Mt. This quantity is equivalent to more than half the quantity of total pulses imported currently. Thus this technology can help to reduce the current imports by more than half. Given this large potential benefit to farmers, consumers, and the economy, we are optimistic that this product would fast progress in the regulatory process before finally becoming available to our farmers.

There are similar initiatives on biotech applications by such public private partnerships in the pipeline, that would help the country to overcome the current demand ? supply gap of pulses and oilseeds in the near future.