Prabhu Pingali, Professor, Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, and Founding Director of the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative (TCi), speaks to BUSINESS TODAY about the skewed food security approach in India, the agriculture policy, and the debate around GM crops. Excerpts:
BT: Indian farmers are still dependent on the vagaries of nature?
Pingali: The problems are multiple. We should look at the situation in terms of where the irrigated and rain-fed areas in the country are. The Green Revolution areas such as Punjab, Haryana, and coastal Andhra traditionally had large-scale irrigation systems, which are degrading rapidly? groundwater depletion is very high. So, some risks are less due to monsoons and more due to poor maintenance of existing systems. That problem is related to the overall food policy. It is related to this very high emphasis on procurement of staple grains for food security. Because of that, India has procurement prices and the machinery of pulling rice and wheat out of the farms into the FCI-driven food distribution system. That's putting a lot of pressure on the Indian system. I am not suggesting one should do away with this system, but one has to think what the optimum level of stock should be in the food security system. India has some 60 million tonnes of stocks. Do you really need 60 million tonnes? Can you come down and reduce the pressure on the food system?
The second aspect is, if there is a way to be more efficient in production of rice and wheat with irrigation water. Can you relook at the ways water pricing takes place in India? the fuel, diesel subsidy? which makes it so cheap to pump water from the groundwater system? Looking at that more carefully allows you to improve the overall sustainability of that irrigated system? which is going to be a big problem as you move forward, as groundwater depletion takes place.
In rain-fed areas, especially in eastern India, there is a big chance of improving productivity by allowing for fairly rapid expansion of small tube well systems. In eastern India you do not have a similar situation of depleting groundwater problem, and investments in large-scale irrigation are small. Here, small farmer-based irrigation systems can make a big difference in managing drought and low rainfall conditions. You see a lot more of that in Bihar today. You can see an expansion of this in the rest of eastern India, Jharkhand, Odisha...
BT: What should be the way forward for optimum utilisation of existing resources?
Pingali: Investment in small farms is one way to move forward. Then you have to think what crops should be grown in which areas. Traditionally, eastern areas have been growing rice and some maize and pulses. One can look at ways through which one can improve drought tolerance of grains. These technologies are available today and converting to these crops will be useful. But I would recommend to go beyond staple crops, and look at crops that have high market demand. For instance, lentils and pulses. Prices of lentils are going through the roof and India still does not have a strategy on how to manage improvements in pulses production. If you can manage higher productivity of pulses and expand the area of pulses - and eastern India is one of the best areas to do that - then you are addressing both the farmer income problem and pulses supply problem at the same time. Also, the water requirement for pulses is much lower than rice, and these crops would be more tolerant to weather and drought conditions than rice would be. That's an opportunity India needs to look at more carefully.
BT: Where does this initiative have to come from?
Pingali: It has to come from all levels. First from the government. Whenever you talk about food policy in India, only rice and wheat are considered. We need to reach a point where government policy has a much more balanced view of what a food policy and a food system should look like. The food system in India is very diverse; the food policy is very narrowly focused on a few crops. People will tell you that we have a horticulture mission, a livestock mission and all, but they do not translate into the same level of policy commitment to increase production. The policy commitment for maintaining rice and wheat supplies is very high. The policy commitment for increasing livestock productivity is not of the same level. Policy commitment includes procurement policies, price support policies, credit, input supply, R&D.
BT: What do you think about the current agricultural policies in India?
Pingali: It is time the Indian agriculture policy thought about nutrition rather than productivity. The Food Security Act is focused on staples, which is important, but staples are not the only part to food security. Food security requires you to have a very balanced food system. Because the Act and the agriculture policy are so focused on staples, you are not creating a balance in the food system. This is my biggest concern about the Indian food policy? vegetables, pulses and lentils, which are so important for overall nutritional security, don't get the same attention as the staples. Refocusing our attention relative to that should be the number one priority.
BT: Do you think India can make this transition?
Pingali: India can make this transition now. India is very comfortable on the staples? both on supply and productivity side. Even if you look towards the future with climate change impact, India's ability to meet her staple crops demand is very good. India's ability to meet demand for non-staples is not good at all. Most of the modelling that is being done is not looking beyond the staples. Nobody asks the question what's the impact of climate change on vegetables, milk production? someone needs to ask that question and think about a broader strategy.
BT: There is a never-ending debate on genetically-modified (GM) foods. What is your take on them?
Pingali: There are a lot of advantages in GM foods. Take the instance of Golden Rice - Vitamin A rich rice - that can potentially remove night blindness among children. It can address the problem of Vitamin A deficiency among poor populations... There is similar potential for other Vitamin-enriched staple grains that can be done through biotechnology. There are big areas that biotechnology can address, it can come up with plants that are much more tolerant to drought and floods...
All the serious evaluations done on GM crops have shown no health and environmental effects. For some reason public perception and some groups have been against GM crops, and that has prevented movement of these crops in the mainstream agriculture system. The only GM crop in India is Bt cotton; globally there are Bt corn, canola and soybean. And then there are smaller crops? brinjal, papaya. Bt brinjal is an interesting story as it was developed by an Indian company, but it could not be released in India and is being released in Bangladesh. The potential of GM is very big.
Also, we should know that biotechnology is more than just GM crops. Biotechnology is also a better understanding of genomics, genetic structures and improved efficiency of existing breeding systems, and some of that gets lost in the debate. I am in favour of using biotechnology as a tool to address the needs of the poor. If we know that we have viable tools for needs of the poor and we are not using them, we should judge our own ability to address these chronic problems of hunger, malnutrition and our ability to have a healthy and productive population.
BT: What is the global position on GM crops? The West is advocating going organic...
Pingali: I don't think there is a global position. Different countries have different views on the subject. The local organic food market is now pretty much all over the world. It's a niche market for people who can afford higher-priced organic food. Having said that, most consumers would like to see pesticide-free or lower-pesticide products. What's interesting is that many GM crops, such as Bt cotton, use significantly lower amounts of pesticides/insecticides than non-Bt cotton. But for some reason that does not get featured in the debate. There is a disconnect that one needs to think through. However, in terms of looking at the bulk commodities such as corn, rice, cotton? the more traditional way of looking at agriculture - what we call modern agriculture - will remain. I don't see the movement of going organic taking over the traditional form. There will be a balance among the different commodities and also consumer preferences.