Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Agricultural revival | The tired mirage of top-down technology

The tired mirage of top-down technology

India’s large and complex public agricultural research and extension system, obsessed with the area-production-yield mantra, is geared towards harnessing technology to close the yield gap, while overlooking ago-ecological approaches entirely. This has been an error of staggering proportions, says Rahul Goswami

How does a technology corporation that makes farm inputs its business see agriculture? This entity, which does its best to convince developing country governments about the need for technology-intensive agricultural research, works hard to influence policy, programmes and eventually the channels that provide farmers with seeds, fertiliser and pesticides. How does this corporation see the farm?

Quite simply, as a consumer for which a consuming system must be sustained. Such a corporation’s work and view requires a few alliances -- with central and state government, with new and potentially lucrative bio-technology labs (private sector), with individual politicians and legislators who can smooth the path for business-friendly acts and regulations, with retail chains that will stifle locally-based competition. While that web is taking shape, this is the reasoning the corporation will dispense for public consumption:

  • First, there have been impressive gains in yields over the past 50 years in most of the world, but large and economically exploitable “yield gaps” remain in many places.
  • Second, there are many technologies that are at “an early stage of adoption” which “promise a win-win combination of enhancing productivity and sustainably managing natural resources”. These include conservation farming approaches based on no-tillage and the genetically modified (GM) technology revolution, used on less than 10% of the world’s cultivated land. This promise is backed by the even younger adoption phase of information and communication technology (ICT).
  • Third, for technology to work best at pushing up yields further, complementary changes in policy and institutions are needed. In much of the developing world, policies are now more favourable towards rapid productivity growth, while a range of innovations in risk management, market development, rural finance, organising farmers, and provision of advisory services can make markets work better.
  • Fourth, plant breeders are making steady gains in potential yields for the big three cereals: wheat and rice (slower than before), and maize. “There is no physiological reason why these gains cannot be maintained, but progress is becoming more difficult with conventional breeding.” The answer is genomics and molecular techniques which are now being regularly applied to speed breeding in the leading multinational seed companies and elsewhere, and their costs are falling rapidly. Moreover, “transgenic technology has a proven record of over a decade of safe and environmentally sound use” and its potential is “to address critical biotic and abiotic stresses of the developing world”.

With the dominance of the area, production and yield (APY) model of measuring and addressing agriculture in India, central and state planners, riding the juggernaut of the national agricultural research system, have reached automatically for industrial models and paper economies of scale. The saddest and most pervasive indicator of what the pursuit of this model has cost India can be seen in the historical trend of fertiliser use (see box). Developing countries now account for 68% of total global fertiliser use. Fertiliser use per hectare is also now higher in developing countries than in industrially advanced countries (in the South vs the North).

Such chemical dependence is especially tragic in India. Albert Howard, considered by many to be the father of organic agriculture, was one of the first to articulate an alternative to chemical agriculture, as usual on the basis of his work in India in the early part of the 20th century. Over his lifetime, he published several books describing composting techniques (practice, experimentation and insights gained through closely working with Yeshwant Wad), underlining the importance of humus and the re-use of agricultural waste on the farm, and urging the elimination of chemical inputs because of their effects on soil fertility. Here was the means to close the yield gap.

For the global agbiotech-seed corporations and their clients and partners in government and the local private sector, the problem is that “closing the yield gap” on the large scale needed requires, as they say, “massive investments in rural infrastructure and institutions, plus technology transfer”. Public sector agencies have, in reaching the billion small farmers in Asia, helped lessen the yield gap but these efforts have been socially and politically driven, in the main. That civic imperative is steadily changing, for in India as in South Asia, the agricultural extension system is unable to respond to new challenges, hampered as it is institutionally. The new “solution” is most likely to come from the well-stocked public-private partnership stable, now strengthened by a combination that brings together ICT and ‘AR4D’ (agricultural research for development).

India’s national agricultural research system has treated agro-ecological approaches to cultivation as a clumsy proto-technical holdout from a bygone era. In doing so, it has made an error of staggering proportions which is only now being recognised. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) may make appropriate noises now and then to quell criticism, but the organic tradition in India’s farming systems cannot find favour with the core of our public agricultural research system, very simply because it is not designed to.

The evidence has been accumulating. A survey conducted by a group of researchers from the Indian Institute of Soil Science, Bhopal, and the Directorate of Oilseeds Research, Hyderabad, has, in rupee terms, compared the costs and benefits of organic farming versus conventional high-input farming. Reporting their findings in the journal Current Science (May 10, 2010), the group’s work shows that organic farming, in spite of the reduction in crop productivity by 9.2%, provided higher net profit to farmers by 22.0%, compared to conventional farming. This is mainly due to the availability of premium price (20-40%) for certified organic produce combined with a reduction in the cost of cultivation by 11.7%. Moreover, there was an overall improvement in soil quality -- physical, chemical, biological properties, availability of macro- and micro-nutrients -- that point to enhanced soil health through the adoption of organic farming methods.

The group surveyed certified organic farms to find and list the real benefits and feasibility of organic farming in terms of the production potential, economics, and soil health compared with conventional farms. The survey was conducted during 2008-09 in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu (including Pondicherry), Kerala and Uttarakhand involving 50 certified organic farms and 50 comparable conventional farms.

Today, an area of more than 528,000 hectares is estimated to be under organic farming in India, with about 45,000 certified organic farms. Economically, the Indian organic farming industry is estimated to produce fruit, vegetables, grain and herbs worth about US$ 78 million and is almost entirely export-oriented. According to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA, the nodal agency that promotes Indian organic agriculture), about 586,000 tonnes’ worth of organic products are being exported annually.

There are biological and energy benefits of organic and agro-ecological farming which, under the growing shadow of climate change and energy scarcity, become even more compelling for our farming households and communities. The density of soil is less in organic farms, which indicates better soil aggregation and soil physical conditions. In India, studies have found up to a 30% increase in the organic carbon of soil in organic farms compared to conventional farms. Next, conservation farming using zero-tillage reduces fuel use for farm power in agriculture by 66-75% -- in irrigated South Asian systems there has been wide adoption by small-scale farmers of zero-tillage in rice-wheat systems (with recorded increases in wheat yields of 11%). As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also pointed out, conservation tillage is also a potentially important source of carbon sequestration in tropical soils.

“With less than 10% of the world’s crop land under conservation tillage, wider adoption of the practice represents a major opportunity to improve the sustainability, energy efficiency and yield of cropping,” was an observation made during the ‘Expert Meeting on How to Feed the World in 2050’, organised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in June 2009. Conservation agriculture is seen as knowledge-intensive and location-specific and requiring sharply increased investment in research on suitable varieties, management practices adapted to specific sites, appropriate machinery, and advisory services and farmer networks.

Is that taking place in India? The short answer is ‘no’. Seven years ago, an ICAR policy briefing said: “Competitive agricultural technology funds focus mainly on short-term research issues. This means that there will always be a need to fund long-term basic research through block grant systems. However, it remains important to improve the competitiveness and accountability of research systems through enhancing the overall share of competitive funding. India has all the necessary preconditions for making competitive funding effective and efficient.”

What has it done with these available and favourable conditions? To answer that requires first a précis on the Indian national agricultural research system.

Currently, the public agricultural research and extension system consists of ICAR and its various institutes, and the State Agricultural Institutes (SAUs) and their various campuses and regional institutes. ICAR funds and manages a vast network of research institutes, including national institutes for basic and strategic research and post-graduate education; central research institutes for commodity-specific research; national bureaus for conservation and exchange of germplasm and soil-survey work; and national research centres for applied, commodity-specific strategic research in what it calls “mission mode”.

In addition, ICAR manages a large number of All-India Coordinated Research Projects (AICRPs), which draw scientists from both ICAR institutions and SAUs. Most AICRP centres are located on SAU campuses under the administrative control of the respective SAUs. However, for the most important AICRPs (rice, wheat, maize, cattle, oilseeds, water, cropping systems, and biological control of pests), ICAR has established special project directorates with their own research infrastructure, under ICAR administrative control, that consist of teams of multi-disciplinary scientists. In addition to the traditional National Agricultural Research System (NARS) -- that is, the ICAR/SAU system -- there are non-agricultural universities and organisations that support or conduct agricultural research either directly or indirectly. For example, the central government Departments of Biotechnology (DBT), Science and Technology (DST), and Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) under the Ministry of Science and Technology, support and conduct agricultural research at their institutes and may also fund research in the ICAR/SAU system.

Forty years ago, there were benefits to the farmer that arose from technological innovations provided by this sprawling, complex system densely populated by an uneasy mix of crop scientists and administrators. However, what this network failed to realise is that the farmer is also often an innovator, and that the national agricultural research system exists primarily to assist the farmer rather than seek direct financial reward through commercialising or licensing their intellectual properties. If at all there is an advocacy for biotechnologies it must demand that farmers can continue to improve and adapt to their circumstances, rather than be forced to consume black-box imports from large patent holders. India’s NARS still shrinks from the recognition that the kind of biotechnology that works best for poor and subsistence farmers so far has not been the kind that concentrates the ownership of plant germplasm in the hands of a few patent holders high up in the agbiotech-seed industry chain.

India’s fertiliser addiction

The Economic Survey 2009-10 has attempted to conceal the true impact of chemical fertiliser abuse in India. Chapter 2 of the survey deals with agriculture, and states: “The per hectare consumption of fertilisers in nutrient terms increased from 105.5 kg in 2005-06 to 128.6 kg in 2008-09.” This is false. Here is why.

In 1950-51, average fertiliser use in India was only 0.58 kg per hectare. The net sown area was 118.75 million hectares upon which 69,000 tonnes of fertiliser were used. Of course, this is a notional average use only, as 60 years ago, fertiliser was an agricultural input in only a few districts that were being primed for what was to become the Green Revolution. Still, that was the ‘national average’.

It took 16 years before that average crossed 10 kg of fertiliser per hectare, and that happened in 1967-68 when the net sown area was 139.88 million hectares and total fertiliser use was 1.53 million tonnes.

Thereafter, it took only five years to reach 20 kg/ha. The period 1971-72 to 1975-76 saw little change -- the only such period in the last 60 years -- in intensity of fertiliser use. Those were the years of the global oil crisis, the so-called ‘first oil shock’ of the ’70s. For that time, the ‘national average’ remained between 18 and 20 kg/ha, while the total net sown area varied little from 140 million hectares and total fertiliser use stayed between 2.65 and 2.89 million tonnes.

Per hectare application of fertiliser continued its upward trend in 1975-76; it took less than eight years to cross 50 kg/ha and another six years to cross 80 kg/ha -- in 1989-90 India’s total fertiliser use was 11.56 million tonnes. In the decade of the 1990s, total fertiliser use in India rose by 44% (from 12.54 mt to 18.06 mt) and per hectare application went up by 46% as the available agricultural land plateaued at around 140 million hectares.

Both total use and per hectare application remained at those levels until 2004-05. In the last four years there has been an astonishingly steep increase in total use and per hectare use. For 2008-09, total fertiliser use at 24.9 mt is more than 6.5 mt more than the figure for 2004-05, and per hectare use has shot up to over 174 kg/ha from 130 kg/ha in 2004-05 -- a jump of 33% in just four years.

The Economic Survey 2009-10 states: “Chemical fertilisers have played a significant role in the development of the agricultural sector. The per hectare consumption of fertilisers in nutrient terms increased from 105.5 kg in 2005-06 to 128.6 kg in 2008-09. However, improving the marginal productivity of soil still remains a challenge. This requires increased NPK application and application of proper nutrients, based on soil analysis.”

The survey is wrong. The per hectare use crossed 105 kg in 1997 -- nine years before the survey says it did -- and crossed 130 kg in 2004-05. In 2008-09, the rude equation is: 143 million hectares of net sown area; 24.9 mt of total fertiliser consumption. The survey has concealed true per hectare consumption of fertiliser by swapping net sown area with gross sown area. Net sown area is the land surface on which crops are grown. To assess output and productivity, when cultivated land is used to grow more than one crop per year, that area on which the second crop is grown is counted again, which gives us gross sown area.

Counting cultivated land more than once raises the sown area from 143 million hectares (net) to 190 million hectares (gross). And that is how the per hectare consumption of fertiliser is portrayed as much lower than it truly is. Chemical fertiliser, however, affects the parcel of land, and is not divisible by the number of crops the land is employed for. The resulting difference is enormous: 45.4 kg/hectare!

Data sources: Reserve Bank of India Handbook of Statistics on Indian Economy 2008-09. For 2007-08 and 2008-09, total NPK consumption figures are from the Economic Survey 2009-10


Public sector transgenic research in India is being done at:

Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat, Assam
Bose Institute, Kolkata
Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur
Central Potato Research Institute, Shimla
Central Tobacco Research Institute, Rajahmundry
Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad
Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack
Delhi University, South Campus, New Delhi
Directorate of Rice Research, Hyderabad
Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi
International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi
International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Hyderabad
Indian Institute of Horticulture Research, Bangalore
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Madurai Kamraj University, Madurai
Narendra Dev University of Agriculture, Faizabad
National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow
Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana
Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore
University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore

(Rahul Goswami is an agriculture systems researcher and a social sector consultant with the National Agriculture Innovation Project)

Infochange News & Features, July 2010