Food, Technology and Mistrust

The pushback against technology in Indian agriculture is largely driven by a suspicion of globalisation in food production. But rather than a coherent policy, this has only resulted in a dogma that is hurting our farmers.

Seldom does a day go by without a report on rural distress in the media. Weather vagaries, increase in input costs, and uneconomic returns on produce have wrecked havoc on farmers’ lives. Depleting groundwater levels, a steady increase in daytime temperatures and a rapid rate of degradation of soil and water will inflict further upheaval in the years to come. While the challenges facing Indian agriculture today might appear insurmountable, history provides hope that our farmers will overcome this just as they have successfully overcome other existential crises in the past.

Recent developments in the external environment pose significant risks to India’s progress. Brexit, as well as the strong stance against embracing more international trade by the two presidential candidates in America are an indication that the erstwhile champions of globalisation are turning insular.

The retreat has been hastened by advancements in science and technology. Developed economies of the world have already entered the robotic age. Technologies such as industrial automation, and additive manufacturing (3D printing) are upending time-tested business models. These technologies are improving productivity while reducing or, in some cases, eliminating human jobs. This too may be responsible for stoking the simmering discontent towards globalisation.

One sector that has clearly benefitted from these new technologies is agriculture. Genetic engineering and newer classes of pesticides such as neonicotinoids have improved plant protection. The deployment of GPS-enabled machines, drones and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors have enabled unprecedented precision in farm management. These new generation technologies are a boon to farmers who have grappled with a labor crunch for a long time. Precision agriculture is helping farmers to accurately pinpoint crops with pest, insect, and weed infestations and then use sprayer drones to treat only those affected plants. It avoids overuse of crop protection chemicals and is economical. Armed with soil moisture data, farmers are saving water by irrigating only areas that suffer from moisture stress. At a recent farm show in Iowa, a self-driving tractor by Case IH was the star of the show.

It is no small feat that Indian agriculture has grown to be the second largest in the world. The Green Revolution of the seventies transformed the sector and moved the country from acute import dependency to self-sufficiency. Better farming methods and improved seed varieties have dramatically increased productivity but the gains of the revolution have largely plateaued in recent years. Per acre yields for all major crops continue to be substantially lower than other major countries. Agriculture has not received the kind of serious attention from policy makers that both services and manufacturing sectors have benefitted from. For a sector that offers livelihood to over half of our population, it continues to trap millions in subsistence.

The introduction of genetically modified cotton in 2002 has been the primary significant event following the Green Revolution. However, after fourteen years of tremendous success during which our cotton output trebled, the gains have now begun to taper off, with no coherent policy to increase fiber yields in the horizon. As a result, textile manufacturers are worried and are scouting for overseas supplies. If the Green Revolution was all about import substitution, we are increasingly relying on imports to fulfill our domestic demand – whether in pulses, cotton or cooking oil – in large part due to our reluctance to embrace science and new technologies. The frequent upward and downward revisions to import duties on agricultural produce indicate that we are more amenable to managing commodity prices than concentrating on a sustainable increase in domestic supplies.

The ongoing debate on genetically modified mustard is yet another example of how anti-science has become a dogma of Indian agriculture. Activists of all hues from left to right have unified against introduction of an indigenously developed technology aimed at increasing domestic production. But we are not subjecting our imports to the same level of scrutiny. For instance, India has become import dependent for cooking oils. While domestic demand is around 160 lakh tonnes (lt), domestic production stands at about 70lt. About half of India’s cooking oil import—including soybean and canola–are largely genetically modified. Increasingly, popular cottonseed oil too is genetically modified and its oil meal has become an important source of animal feed. There has been a steady shrinkage of soybean acreage as GM soybean from Brazil and the US has made non-GM soy inefficient. China, the largest importer of soybean, has joined the GM bandwagon. The rigid stance towards technology adoption will continue to restrict impoverished farmers in the country while leaving the door open for genetically modified imports. We have to overcome this inherent duplicity.

East Asian countries chose manufacturing as a means to pull millions out of poverty but advances in manufacturing have severely limited that option for India. We enjoyed an advantage in services for a period of time but automation may eliminate many jobs in that sector in the decade ahead. That leaves us with agriculture as a sector where we can be world feeders. The key to a better future here lies in empowering farmers with greater access to markets, information, and science and technology.

We can continue to be suspicious of modern agriculture in a way that restricts farming opportunities and incomes. Or we can embrace science in the quest to become a global agricultural powerhouse. Indian agriculture has reached an inflection point and needs to confront these binary options. The world is moving ahead and, if we fail to move with it, we may never completely recover.

Aruna Urs (farms in his ancestral village near Mysore and is a resident farmer of Takshashila Institution)