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India has been a special focus country for Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) since its inception. Currently, Dr. PETER E KENMORE represents FAO in India. He has been the key person behind implementing Integrated Pest Management in the country. He talks to MOHD MUSTAQUIM about soil management and integration of science with agriculture
What transformations have you witnessed in Indian agriculture in the last few decades?
From 1982, when I came to India, to now the production of foodgrain has grown from 152 million tonnes to 264.7 million tonnes in 2013-14. Simultaneously, population has also increased. In 1994, India was able to minimise the usage of pesticide, and at the same time foodgrain production grew. Indian farmers are now able to do farming in efficient manner, producing more food with lesser quantity of pesticide which reduces the negative impact on environment. Thus, the pesticide use was reduced to below 50,000 metric tonne from 74,000 metric tonne.
India has seen a green revolution in the late 60s, do you think another is possible?
I think the green revolution in the 1960s was a big success in increasing per hectare yield. It was done through a combination of investment in irrigation, in seeds and fertiliser while the usage of pesticides eventually came down. In the 1950s, India was dependent on the charity and import of food coming from outside, but in 15-20 years, India became sufficient in food production to feed itself. However, over 200 million people in India still face food insecurity, despite the fact that they are living in food growing areas. They are the food growers, landless workers and the marginal farmers. We have to work on increasing their productivity.
Another important issue is the pulses. India is the largest producer of pulses, the largest consumer, and also the largest importer in the world. During 11th and 12th five-year plans, production went up from 12 million tonnes to 19 million tonnes. It is a big increase, a classical green revolution, but the problem is that India consumes 22 million tonnes. We have to continue that increase by better management of soil, water and fertiliser. In pulses, there are bacterias, symbiotic and rhizobium which grab nitrogen from the atmosphere. However, in rain-fed areas only irrigation and nitrogen is not going to help; we need more advanced technical support for them.
Though India has the largest arable land, it is still lagging behind in farm production from many countries. How can India be a food power?
I think India is already a food power. In the last 2-3 years India has been the largest exporter of rice. That means, India is a food power. Millions of people in Africa and South Asia are dependent on the rice India has been exporting. The questions is how can we increase the productivity. It does not mean only higher yield, it also means better efficiency. In every village, some farmers get higher yield while some get lower yield. The big challenge is to bridge the yield gap by increasing the low yield farmers’ production. The other thing is research, which needs serious attention.
Kindly shed some light on agricultural education and research in India.
About 638 Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) are now functioning across India, more or less one in each district. KVKs are starving for advanced educated or PhD people. KVKs need to have agri scientists, connected with agri universities and other KVKs, and should do applied research. It should not be their job to just broadcast what others have discovered in a research station like Pusa or in other places. They should be solving the issues of farmers with scientific support in each and every district. If the problem is not solved there, then they should use the network with universities and other KVKs. They should not be repeating what other scientists did two years before. They have big potential to bring revolution in agriculture sector.
The non-judicious use of agro-chemicals and fertiliser has been the primary reason for soil degradation in India. How do you see this problem and how can this be solved?
India has been a good example of reducing the use of pesticide. Pesticides are basically toxic to people. We need to replace them with pesticides which are less hazardous to life. There is the same problem with herbicides. Weeding or pulling by hand is a hard work, so herbicides are very useful. But we should use less hazardous herbicides. If one kind of herbicide is used constantly, it increases the resistance in the weed. So in many parts of the world, so many weeds are resistant to herbicides.
In fertiliser, to minimise the use of Nitrogen, we can replace it with a bio fertiliser, rhizobium. Pulse seeds already have rhizobium in itself. Institutes like TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) and ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) focus on mycorrhizae, which can be used in place of phosphorus. Mycorrhizae extends the length of the plant roots to grab phosphorus more efficiently. That’s the way you can overcome the shortage of phosphorous.
Urea is over used here. Crops need micro nutrients like zinc, manganese and sulphur. The good mix of micro nutrients would give better yield. The prices of fertiliser is also the major reason: urea is very cheap as the Government gives subsidies of over Rs 50,000 crore every year. We need to educate the farmers for better knowledge, availability and judicious use of fertilisers. If a farmer is going to buy fertiliser, there should be small packets of micro nutrients; one field may need zinc, but another may need manganese.
What co-relation do you see between science and agriculture?
It is more important to invest more on the education of farmers. India has a big problem of water, so we need to get more crop per drop. Farmers should have the knowledge of how they can minimise the use of water. They should also be aware of where to use micro irrigation and where not to use. Again, I am saying, KVKs can be a big tool for training of farmers in a scientific manner. The point is, the habit of soil, nutrients and water in soil, water harvesting, keeping track on the moisture, short duration of crops which need lesser water, in all these issues farmers should be able to become a powerful decision maker. We need to have better decision support for farmers.
As the world population is rising, what are the steps we need to take to feed them?
The United Nation, under the Secretary General, has five-point programme called ‘Zero Hunger’ campaign. First, access to safe and good nutrient food. Second, zero stunting for children, and making the system sustainable. Third, if you grow paddy, it needs round-the-clock water in the filed, so grow paddy in the eastern region of India where there is a good availability of water. We should not grow paddy in Haryana and Punjab which is already facing water crisis. Haryana and Punjab can be good for wheat, but not for paddy. The fourth point is, increase the productivity and income of marginal farmers. The final thing, eliminate food waste which happens during the course of transportation.