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India's agricultural miracle needs revival

Most people have heard of the economic miracle transpiring in India's information technology sector. The people with the accents you can't understand when you call about your computer are expected to generate more than $87 billion for India in 2008.

What's less heralded is the agricultural miracle occurring in India. Once known as a “ship-to-mouth” food economy, India has become a food surplus country producing 212 million tons of food grains, 90 million tons of milk and various other horticultural and agricultural products.

(India is also poised to tie the United States as the world's second largest cotton producer. After increasing its average yield from 300 to 400 pounds per acre with Bt cotton, the country has raised its annual output above 20 million bales.)

Despite those successes, India and other developing countries still need more investment in its farmers if they are to have any hope of food sufficiency in the coming decades, the leader of one of India's largest states says.

“In spite of rapid strides made by many developing countries, including India, thanks to the Green Revolution, the economic condition of farmers has not improved,” said Y.S. Rajashekara Reddy, chief minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India.

“Due to unprecedented growth in population during the last 50 years and lack of employment opportunities in non-farm sectors to accommodate the growing population, a phenomenally large population continues to be dependent on agriculture, leading to fragmentation of land and substantially lower incomes.”

Reddy, a speaker at the World Agricultural Forum's World Congress in St. Louis, says that unless a second Green Revolution leads to improved welfare of farmers, India and other countries cannot sustain the growth in agriculture.

“We are meeting here at a time when the whole world is rightly concerned about the food and nutrition security of over 6.7 billion people inhabiting Mother Earth,” said Reddy. “I believe that nearly 3 billion people will be added to the world population by the middle of this century. That makes things more complex and the challenges more formidable.”

He wasn't the only speaker projecting a significant gain in the world's population. The potential for a 50-percent increase by 2050 was cited again and again as a wake-up call for the world's governments to realize agriculture should be the focus of attention.

Increasing demands on limited resources are already evident, he said. The world is witnessing collapsing fisheries, depleting water resources, rising atmospheric CO2 levels, eroding soils, rising temperatures, degrading biodiversity, falling water tables, shrinking forests, expanding deserts, melting glaciers, rivers that are running dry, changing global climate and dwindling reserves of fossil fuels.

“It is a matter of great concern that even while we have not completed celebrations of the benefits of the Green Revolution unleashed in the last century, we are compelled to address the problems of food shortages, which seem inevitable, given the unprecedented growth in world population from the middle of the last century, on one hand, and depleting resources on the other.”

Countries that have, until recent years, enjoyed considerable food surpluses have started importing food grains to meet internal requirements, Reddy said. “There has been a virtual stagnation in the production and productivity levels of various agricultural crops in the last decade. In four of the last five years, there was a deficit in food production.”

With the rise in petroleum prices worldwide, agro-products such as sugarcane, corn, rapeseed, mustard, sunflowers, potatoes and palm oil are being increasingly used for production of ethanol and biodiesel, reducing the land available for food production.

“For the 50 percent of the world population living on $2 a day or less and who spend 70 percent of their income on food, even a modest rise in the food price can quickly become life threatening,” he noted. “For them, it is the next meal that is the overriding concern. The issue of food security and providing food at an affordable price is critical for peace and tranquility in the world.”

Because he believes every “daunting” challenge offers an opportunity, such problems can be surmounted. Countries like India have demonstrated such ability in the past, according to Reddy.

“Many prophesied that an independent India would witness hunger deaths on a daily basis. Far from that, we have now emerged as an important player not only in food grains production but also in various agricultural products and in animal husbandry and fisheries.

“This did not happen by accident or by chance. It required an astute leadership to convert a food deficit country to a food surplus country in the face of a huge, rising population.” (Currently, India is believed to be home to 1.1 billion people. By 2020, that could rise to 1.45 billion and by 2050 to 2 billion.)

Andhra Pradesh, a state of 80 million people with nearly 62 percent of the population directly employed in agriculture, is a case in point of what is happening in much of the developing world, Reddy said.

When he became chief minister of the state in 2004, Reddy said widespread distress was occurring among the farming community in Andhra Pradesh. “We immediately strengthened the agricultural Extension services, worked closely with the banks to make more money available to farmers and developed village seed programs,” he said.

“We also embarked on a program of bringing 3 million hectares (1 hectare = 2.7 acres) under irrigation within the next five years. In the first three years, we have already spent $4.6 billion on irrigation, which is much more than we spent in the last 15 years.”

But more needs to be done, he said. “Even after completion of all the irrigation projects, 40 percent of our agriculture will continue to be rain dependent,” he said. “So we have decided to have a special strategy for improving the lives of our people. That is to encourage watershed programs for increasing the groundwater levels and for recharge of ground water aquifers. This will lead to reduction in soil erosion and increase in cropping intensity.”

Achieving these gains will take more investment and commitment on the part of the Indian government and other organizations, he said. And it may require a second Green Revolution.

“The first Green Revolution, which was input intensive and which provided the much-needed food security for the world, has developed a fatigue,” he said. “So we have to make substantial investments in soil conservation and eco-technologies. Investments have to be made by governments in research and development for biotechnology, better seed development and many other areas.

“Last but not least, the developed countries have a major role to play in the sense that they can really provide market access to the farmers of developing countries and fair terms of trade for their produce.”

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