Seeds of Thought

Green paddy fields. Golden ears of wheat. Rows of lush vegetable plants. These are the magazine worthy images we would like to associate with agriculture in India. And we often do see these snapshots of abundance during our sojourn across rural India in our cars or trains or any other form of transport we wish to undertake. But as we dig deeper and look beyond this serene landscape, the narrative shifts and assumes some grim undertones – of water deprivation, soil infertility and harsh climatic conditions.

Agriculture is a profession that not only sustains livelihood but also lives. One that serves up that most essential of human needs – food. Since independence, India’s economic engine has been fueled by the agricultural sector to a large degree. And it continues to be a significant factor in economic growth and development even as other sectors are also now helping to propel this engine.

Thanks to the efforts of the men and women in our agrarian communities, our granaries, markets and homes do have an ongoing supply of grain, pulses and other food produce. These individuals have served on the frontlines, driving many of the sector’s past successes – including the Green Revolution of the 60s. We have made significant strides in the years following independence, achieving self-sufficiency in a wide variety of grains and agricultural produce.

And yet, there are a large number of families across many parts of the country that are still struggling with food scarcity, hunger and malnutrition. The harsh reality is that self-sufficiency does not automatically translate into food security for the nation.

So, what more can we expect from the nation’s agricultural sector? To get some answers to this question, we can delve into the past to see what spurred the successes of the Green Revolution and to analyze the areas that still need further work.

Seed was at the heart of the Green Revolution – seed with advanced technology to improve farm production. It was the innovative input that helped transform farming outcomes in fields across the country. It showed us that technology could be a game changer in this area; that the right technological solutions, judiciously applied, could help us take on many of the challenges in agriculture involving productivity, crop disease and more.

However, the Green Revolution showed us that, for maximum impact, not only do all of the country’s farming regions need to be touched in a uniform manner but the benefits of technology need to be expanded to cover the agriculture sector in a much more holistic manner.

We are now once again in a position to revolutionize the Indian farming landscape through smart farming practices and innovative technologies. The choices we make today will determine the health of this sector in the decades to follow. The right choices can also dramatically alter the prevailing scenario on food security and access.

Let us take a look at just what some of those choices may look like:

Currently, much of India’s farmland is rain dependent and non-irrigated. While we push for public investment in vital irrigation systems, we need to explore watershed management strategies – including ways to increase the green cover – to optimize water availability and utilization in these areas.

When we hit a plateau with such efforts, technology can help. Water stress is believed to be the leading abiotic stress for crops such as maize, rice and many others. Agricultural technology has helped in developing drought tolerant crops and many of these are in advanced stages of testing. We have already seen the potential of technology in crops such as cotton where, by eliminating the risk of bollworm pest attack on the crop, it has been possible to reduce pesticide use and boost farming income.

There is important research at advanced stages of development in salinity tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency, weed management and so on which can go a long way in helping farmers control many of the variables that impact individual crop output and ultimately, the nation’s food supply.

We can demonstrate that it is possible to meet our food needs without ignoring environmental concerns. Precision farming is one such technology-enabled practice that India can adopt in a more consistent way. It allows for the delivery of fertilizers, pesticides and water on an ‘as needed’ basis, rather than through routine and scheduled applications. This makes it possible for these inputs to be provided only at critical crop development stages and keeps greenhouse gas emissions low in the process.

There are many other solutions such as these that are apt for the Indian agricultural landscape. We are at the cusp of a new era of innovation in Indian agriculture – one that can lead us towards the food security that we have been striving for since Independence.

As we seek to evolve and be recognized as one of the world’s leading agricultural forces, we have to look for more than self-sufficiency in food production. We need to aim for surplus production that allows us to become a net exporter of food. Only when our farmers have adequate marketable surplus can we meet the needs of our populous country when it comes to both availability and affordability.