Agrochemicals: The tool to increasing India's food availability

Despite rising foodgrain production, the per capita availability of food is falling in India. How do we intend to feed the burgeoning population that is expected to keep growing roughly for the next 50 years

June 18, 2014 12:09 IST | India Infoline News Service
India achieved a record foodgrain production of 259.29 million tonnes in the 2011-12 crop year. The output was an increase over the previous crop years production of 235.88 million tons which again was a record in itself. While in the year 2012-13, the output fell slightlyto 255.36 million tonnes in 2012-13 due to drought in some parts of the country, this year again expectations indicate a record breaking production.

When we read and hear the record numbers generated each year to announce Indias foodgrain production, little do we register that even though our total foodgrain production in absolute terms is increasing, the per capita availability of food is on a steady decline.

Data from the Economic Survey shows that in 1961, the time preceding the Green Revolution, the per capita foodgrain availability in India was 468.7 grams. The population at this point of time in India was around 439.2 million. As India entered the era of the Green Revolution, the foodgrain production increased manifold. At the same time Indias population too grew rapidly. In 1991 when India had doubled its population to 846.4 million, the per capita availability of foodgrains too had increased to 510.1 grams, thanks to modern techniques of agriculture.

However, thereafter the yields started plateauing and the per capita availability of foodgrain started falling as the Indian population continued to grow, crossing the 1 billion mark. In 2011, 438.6 grams of foodgrains were available to each Indian citizen.

With a population of 1.2 billion people and growing, India as a country has the most number of mouths to feed after China. But, unlike China whose population is expected to peak over the next 10 years, Indias population is likely to keep growing well till 2060. This drives home the point that Indian agriculture sector is in urgent need to overcome plateauing yields to meet the growing demand at home.

If the production does not match the rate of increase of our population, the per capita availability of foodgrain will further decline. It is interesting to note that total per capita foodgrain consumption in the US is over five times that of an average Indian.

Right up to the mid 1960s when India witnessed a major food crisis and famine, requiring massive food aid and shipments from abroad, Indian farmers battled erratic rainfall, crop failures and low yields. However, with the introduction of intensive farming to increase production per unit of land, the agricultural yields increased and food could be made available to the Indian plate. The results were revolutionary.

Yet, over four decades after the agriculture boom, Indian food production needs another revival. We are adding to our population every day but our land area is not increasing. The increasing population of India (already 16 per cent of the world lives in India which has 2 per cent of the total landmass of the world) is limiting the availability of per capital cultivable land. Need to expand residential spaces as well as building infrastructure projects has also put pressure on agricultural land. In such a scenario, how will we ensure that in the next 50 years, our food production remains sufficient to feed the increasing population of the country?

The answer again lies in increasing yield per unit of land through increased and judicious use of agro chemicals.

Indian farmers are among the leading producers of wheat, rice, fruit, sugarcane, groundnut and tobacco. They are also the worlds largest producers of pulses, jute, tea and cauliflower. However, there is still immense potential to increase the total production if they judiciously and intelligently use agro chemicals to augment their production.

Despite being the fourth largest producer of agrochemicals globally, after the United States, Japan and China, the usage of insecticides in India stands is actually very low, in fact, the one of the lowest in the world at just 0.58 kg per hectare against 4.5 kg per hectare in the US and 10.8 kg per hectare in Japan. The worlds average pesticide consumption is 3 kg/ha.

Some of the reasons for low consumption in India are low purchasing power of farmers, lack of awareness among farmers, limited reach and lower accessibility of products. Effort is required in this area so that we are able to increase our production per unit of land and ensure the per capita availability of food doesnt fall.

The use of agro chemicals is an important element in agriculture. For farmers, it is very crucial to take care of the health of their crops and protect them against the menace of pest attacks. Akin to the need of medical intervention like vaccination and antibiotics in human beings, is the need for agro chemicals to protect crops.

The market size of Indian agro- chemicals industry is expected to more than double to USD 5 billion by 2017 on rising agri production and increasing awareness among farmers. This is a positive sign. In India, per capita pesticide consumption is less than 500 gm per hectare, which is far below the world average of about 3 kg per hectare. This needs to increase to keep up with our rising food requirements.

Technological advancements in the field of agrochemicals over the years have allowed farmers to increase crop yields, better protect their crops from pest and weed attacks and equip their crops to better fight against environmental factors. Food production has benefited from constant advancements in agricultural technologies. Tools such as herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides help reduce crop losses and increase yields.

Make no mistake, agriculture continues to be the backbone of Indian economy, it employs 58 % of the total workforce, and accounts for a major share of exports. With sufficient production, it plays a crucial role in ensuring that as a country we are self sufficient in feeding our people. And agrochemicals remain a key to the success of Indianagriculture.

The author is Managing Director, Insecticides India Limited

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