The food crisis earlier this year hit developing countries particularly hard, but India has fared surprisingly well. That's partly because India had already gone through a crisis of its own, three years ago, when surpluses were depleted; agricultural output was hardly growing; and farmers were committing suicide in record numbers. For this reason, agricultural productivity has been a hot-button issue for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. To keep his party in power, Singh needed not only to increase food production, but also to increase farmer incomes and end a debt crisis. Despite these gains, India lags behind China and Vietnam in productivity. P.K. Joshi, director of the New Delhi-based National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf about the challenges India faces. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: India produces only about half as much rice per hectare as China, the world's largest producer, and just about a third less than Vietnam. Why are India's crop yields so low?
P.K. Joshi: We need not compare China's yield and India's yield, because of several reasons. The first reason is that India is a very heterogenous country, from irrigated area to rain-fed area and rice is also grown in very marginal areas. So the average productivity seems to be very low. If we look to our irrigated areas, the yields are very high compared to any part of the world, and in rain-fed areas they are low because of less water and other factors. In China, they are using more than two-and-a-half times [the fertilizer that] Indian farmers are [using]. And China is growing hybrid rice, which has very high potential, and because of their governance system, they distribute the seed, and the farmers have to produce that variety.
In India, we have a democratic society, and the farmer is free to choose any variety or any hybrid. If the farmer has enough money to buy good seed, he does. But if not, he uses his own seed (from the year before). Another reason is the length of growing season. You know, in China, they take one crop per year. If you see our farmers, in Punjab they are growing rice and wheat in one year. In Haryana, rice and wheat. In some parts of West Bengal, the entire Indo-Gangetic Plain, three rice crops are being taken up per year. So if you compare the double crops, it will be on par with the Chinese one crop per year.
Should India be doing more to encourage farmers to use hybrids?
Yes, definitely. If we are speaking particularly about rice, then I would say that in rice, the hybrids have very high potential. There's a difference between high yielding varieties and hybrids. A hybrid is a cross between two different male and female plants, but the varieties are self-pollinating, so the hybrid has higher potential.
One issue for India's agricultural productivity appears to be water scarcity. Does India need more irrigation projects?
We do not have a water scarcity. But the issue of water management is important. We need to harvest water; use it more appropriately, use it more judiciously.
Has India invested sufficiently in agriculture, or has it fallen behind China and other Asian nations?
These countries are investing huge in agricultural research and also in agricultural development programs. In India, we [used to have] a huge surplus--if you go only six years back we used to have a huge buffer stock [of food grains]. [Unfortunately] we wanted to get rid of that buffer stock, either by subsidizing food or through many different social safety net programs. We started reducing poverty through these distribution programs, so investment in agriculture was reduced. And I would tell you that right now, this government has started increasing investment in agriculture, but it's still lower than what it used to be in 1970, if we compare in terms of percentage of agricultural GDP.
Why hasn't India been able to boost agricultural investment further? Singh has talked about this as a big issue since he came into office.
During the last three years, a lot of investment has been done in the agriculture sector because there was a serious crisis in Indian agriculture three years ago. Everybody was talking about agrarian distress. Farmers were committing suicide. And agricultural growth was less than 2 percent, while the target was 4 percent and more. The government [made] agriculture [a top] priority. Investment started increasing. Programs were tuned to increase agricultural production. [Prices were controlled] so they didn't rise as quickly as they did in the global market. The result was that when there was a serious food crisis around the world this year, India was almost comfortable. We were importing wheat two years ago, but for the past two years we have not thought about importing wheat. We now have a surplus in rice as well as wheat.
For several years, the growth rate of India's agricultural output has been slow. Apart from more investment, what does India need to do to rejuvenate the green revolution?
We expect the same kind of green revolution, which we witnessed in the mid 60s and early 70s. But we have an unnoticed revolution in Indian agriculture. If you look at sugar production, if you look at cotton, or dairy milk production, poultry or fish, or horticulture--which is vegetables and fruits, even maize--you see that the production of these commodities has remarkably increased. Also, you will notice that this year we had record food grain production--230.5-million tons. We have not seen that kind of food production during the green-revolution days. At that time, the reason we realized it was a revolution was that we were hungry. There was a famine in 1966, and suddenly production increased. Now that kind of hunger is not there, so we are ignoring the increase in production.
The introduction of genetically modified crops has been a controversial topic in India. Why are Indian farmers and activists concerned about GM foods?
Among activists, the apprehension is that [GM crops] may adversely affect [human] health. There's no evidence so far, globally, that it will. But activists [worry about] playing with nature and using genes from other organisms to change another species. The proponents feel that the future lies with these genetically modified crops, because the [cultivation] area is shrinking for crops, and you have to increase production. Production can be increased only by increasing productivity.
Even during the green revolution period, when high-yielding varieties came, there was a lot of apprehension. I still remember in 1967-1968 activists saying that it would create [stomach ulcers and that] the taste is not good. From the health point of view, the nutritional point of view, there was no negative effect during the green revolution. So may be the case with genetically modified commodities.
A lot of farmers seem to be shifting from essential grains to horticulture and cash crops to take advantage of the end consumer's higher spending power. Is it a concern from a food security standpoint that they're switching away from food grains?
As our incomes are increasing, as urbanization is taking place, as globalization is unfolding, the demand of the consumers is shifting away from cereal based diets to high-value commodities or processed commodities. Horticulture crops like fruits and vegetables have increased, milk products have increased. You now see lots of ice cream parlors--demand for processed dairy products [is rising]. Farmers are responding.
All these commodities are perishable in nature. If there is a sudden increase in production, there is a flood in the market and prices crash like anything because farmers cannot store these commodities. So what we need are good cold-storage facilities, we need the cold chains [to refrigerate products on the way to market]. And I feel that the government alone can't develop so many cold storage facilities or these cold chains. The participation of the private sector is very important, in this context, to integrate the markets.
Why does so much of India's agricultural production spoil on the way to market or in storage? I've read some estimates that peg the waste as high as 40 percent.
Largely, it is the perishable commodities. In the case of grains, it is only through rats and rodents and some storage problems. But in perishable commodities the waste is extreme. This is because the markets are not well integrated; there are missing markets; the roads are not good.