Farming awaits Technology thrust

S. CHANDRAMOHAN

S. CHANDRAMOHAN

Farm exports will pick up if there are cold chains to reduce wastage, better warehousing facilities, improved food hygiene and an increased area under contract farming.

Indian agriculture is full of paradoxes. While it has the largest irrigated land in the world, ranks second in terms of arable land, and is the largest producer of milk, tea and pulses, rice and wheat, it still lags behind in terms of agricultural exports.

While India's share of exports in world production is nearly 10 per cent in fruits and 14 per cent in vegetables, and it produces more than 50 per cent of the world's mangoes and 20 per cent of the world's bananas, its share in world exports of fruits and vegetables is hardly 1 per cent. A modernisation impetus can transform this scenario.

PRODUCTIVITY ISSUES

India wastes more fruits and vegetables than are consumed in the UK. The yield for most of the key agricultural products today is 20-40 per cent of the world's best levels.

Productivity of pepper in Kerala is 320 kg per hectare, while Vietnam, a smaller country than India, produces 1.2 tonnes per hectare. Similarly, India's coffee productivity is 765 kg per hectare, while Vietnam produces 1.7 tonnes per hectare. While India leads with its annual milk production of 100 million tonnes, an estimated 75 million women are involved in growing or collecting fodder and feed essential for the diary animals to produce milk. In contrast, one lakh farmers are involved in producing 70 million tonnes of milk in the US.

This does not mean that the 75 million women are to be displaced. We must improve productivity and profitability of the land, through labour diversification and small automation, and not labour displacement.

TACKLING WASTAGE

After fruits and vegetables are harvested, the produce is kept out in the sun in baskets or in open piles where it deteriorates rapidly. Much of it becomes inedible within a day or two of harvesting.

The produce is handled roughly. It is piled into large cane baskets or onto truck beds without cushioning and transported in open trucks that leave it exposed to temperatures often exceeding 40 degrees Celsius. This is best tackled by increasing investment in cold chains.

VALUE-ADDITION

Majority of the food units are engaged in primary processing. The production base of secondary and tertiary processed foods is low, resulting in low value-addition. This scenario has to change.

Most of the processing in India is currently manual. There is limited use of technology like pre-cooling facilities for vegetables, controlled atmospheric storage and irradiation facilities. Technology is important for extended storage of fruits and vegetables, rendering them conducive for further processing. While all farm units may not be able to take advantage of scale economies, India's diversity should be used to make it the “organic food hub”, the “vegetarian food hub”, the “sea food hub” among others.

Food chain clusters should be formed with the participation of all stakeholders such as farmers, seed growers, merchants, transporters, wholesalers, retailers, financial institutions and insurance companies. Information-sharing is essential for generating efficiencies. We need to identify our niche strengths and develop brands for those specific products. There are certain product categories where India has already made a mark, such as marine products, Indian ethnic products, honey, specific tropical fruits and their products.

Food standards are expected to acquire greater importance, given the increasing concerns on food safety against the backdrop of diseases such as bird flu. The capacity of India to penetrate world markets depends on its ability to meet increasingly stringent food safety standards imposed by developed countries.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Prof. M.S. Swaminathan has been repeatedly saying that at least one women and male member of every panchayat should be trained as knowledge managers. The gram panchayat should be fully involved in providing policy oversight at the village level.

The Government should make use of its own machinery as well as various academies like the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Rural Prosperity to train people. In addition, the following approaches can be pursued:

Engage direct manufacturer–farmer linkage. Contract/cluster farming has to be extended. Agriculture universities have to be fruitfully engaged for this purpose;

Encourage value -addition through incentives;

More incentives for infrastructure for packing, cold storages, refrigerated transport systems;

Warehousing facilities have to be significantly improved upon;

A one-time amendment of basic food law and standards integrating all existing regulations into one, clearly spelling out responsibilities and definite direction for future amendments;

Increase production of oilseeds and pulses: It is heartening to note that during this year, the Government increased MSP of oilseeds and pulses relative to rice and wheat

Supply of quality seeds

Improvement in pulses acreage

With the prospect of more floods in North India, rice varieties with genes for submergence tolerance must be introducedd. Genes responsible for drought tolerance have been identified. Of course, environmental impact and food safety aspects have to be taken into account.

More use of FM radio, TV and the cellphones to communicate to the farmers the new variety of crops, introduction of new seeds, and weather information, in addition to the market price.

Usage of implements such as rotovator, laser leveller, combined harvesters, in addition to tractor, for productivity improvement must be looked into.

 

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