India's population is growing faster than farm output, threatening one of its most prized achievements.
By Jason Overdorf
Sept. 4, 2006 issue - The Furnace Australia sailed into Chennai last month carrying a load of wheat and, some warned, ill tidings. India's first wheat imports in six years marked a reversal in the march toward "food independence" that the country began in the 1970s. To M. S. Swaminathan, one of the agronomists credited with sparking the so-called Green Revolution, the return of grain imports should be seen as "a wake-up call" for a country that has in recent years taken its ability to feed its people for granted.
Though India's government officially dismissed the return of grain imports as a passing event, Swaminathan and other experts saw it as the latest sign of a long-term decline. The growth rate of grain production has fallen from 1.5 percent before 1995 to 1 percent today, due to a combination of bad management, unpredictable weather and a growing water shortage. Meanwhile, the growth rate for all crops has fallen to 1.25 percent a year, the lowest level since India gained independence in 1947, says Ramesh Chand, acting director of India's National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research. That's too slow to keep pace with a population now growing, according to United Nations estimates, at a rate of 1.5 percent a year. Chand says the threat to India's food independence is manageable, if the government makes the right moves.
These are sobering indicators for the Green Revolution, which was originally inspired by grave threats to the food supply in India. After back-to-back droughts put the country in danger of massive starvation in 1966, a U.S. presidential-advisory commission called for an "effort unprecedented in human history" to raise farm output around the world. And so it did, as scientists produced new strains of rice and wheat that boosted yields by a factor of five, with the help of heavy irrigation and applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In India, an initially well-executed campaign raised grain output from 82 million metric tons in 1960 to 176 million tons in 1990 and cut imports to zero by 2000. That is, until the trend reversed last month.
Now production gains are slowing as the water supply dwindles, overzealous use of fertilizer and pesticides taints the soil and excessive irrigation waterlogs the land along canals in the showpiece states of India's Green Revolution, like the Punjab and Haryana.
Because irrigated land is two and ahalf times more productive than rain-fed land, many of the gains of the Green Revolution were produced by an increase in the area under irrigation. But as India's population and economy grow, water supplies are shrinking. Already, the World Bankestimates, India meets most of its irrigation and household demand by tapping groundwater—a practice that is "no longer sustainable."
Similar threats haunt China and other developing nations that were big beneficiaries of the Green Revolution. China has responded by relaxing its commitment to being completely self-sufficient in the production of food—encouraging farmers to grow more lucrative fruits and vegetables, while importing wheat and soybeans. To free-trade advocates, this approach makes sense—why obsess over "food independence" in an increasingly global free market, if others grow wheat more efficiently than you do? Focus on the goods, agricultural or not, that you grow most efficiently.
Indeed, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called in January for a "second Green Revolution," his concern focused on raising farm incomes, not securing the food supply. He called for a fresh emphasis on fruits, vegetables and new plant varieties that would command higher prices in export markets. He also encouraged measures to harvest rainwater more efficiently, improve the soil and spread the benefits of agricultural technology, including genetically modified seeds.
But the basic position of the Singh government is that India normally produces more grain than it consumes, and soon will again. As for the recent return to imports, officials dismissed it as a procurement snafu: this year, for the first time, India allowed private buyers, including multinationals, to buy wheat directly from farmers. That helped push up prices, and the government responded by refusing to match the prices offered by private buyers. It wound up buying less wheat than usual for the federal program that provides subsidized grain to 150 million poor Indians. When supplies fell short, the government had to turn to imports—temporarily, officials insist.
Critics argue that Singh and his government are missing the big picture. Farm-policy analyst Devinder Sharma complains that "the people who govern this country believe technology is the answer to every problem," and are pushing a second revolution without examining why the first "has collapsed." Chand says the key going forward is to target backward states like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, which have done little to modernize their farms, and thus have "huge potential" to reverse the slowdown in output.
One reason for these problems is that over the past decade India, as part of its effort to reduce the state role in the economy, has cut back significantly on investment in farms. Public-sector investment fell from just over 2 percent of agricultural output in 1991 to less than 1.5 percent in 2001. That slashed funds for upgrading Green Revolution technologies and for the extension programs that teach farmers how to make it all work.
By the late 1980s, when the early gains made in rice and wheat had slowed, India attempted to extend its success to pulses (peas and beans) and oilseeds. Though it did manage to produce high-yield seeds, the program failed to supply enough of these seeds to farmers, and poor oversight allowed corrupt traders to pass off ordinary seeds as high-yield hybrids, says Delhi University agricultural economist Usha Tuteja. With its vegetarian tradition India is the world's largest consumer of protein-rich pulses, but now ranks near the bottom in the production of these crops.
Swaminathan urges leaders to focus on what he calls an "evergreen revolution." The goal would be to correct the damage wrought by the first Green Revolution: adoptingnew methods like the use of natural predators instead of chemicals to eliminate pests, and switching to organic fertilizers and more efficient drip irrigation. He also says Singh should promote crops that require less water, including native Indian grains such as finger millet (ragi), pearl millet (bajra) and sorghum (jowar).
That's a tough sell for two reasons: these coarse grains, once a staple of regional Indian cuisines, have fallen out of style since the first Green Revolution made wheat cheap and plentiful. So restoring their popularity will take a major marketing push, of the kind governments rarely do well. Second, Singh sees India very differently from the critics, as a nation fighting to attain middle-class comfort, not one at risk of sliding into mass hunger. Watch the future voyages of the Furnace Australia, and whether it is carrying grain to India, for one strong sign of which view is right.
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.
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