India cannot afford organic farming

S K SINHA national professor at the Water Technology Centre, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, spoke to Manish Tiwari on food security and the future of chemical agriculture in India

By Mario
Published: Friday 15 October 1999

Can foodgrain production in India be increased further?
I see no reason why foodgrain production in the country cannot be increased. To think that only Punjab represents the entire country, is wrong. In many areas foodgrain production can be increased by using increased inputs, like fertilisers. We tend to compare the foodgrain production of India with other countries like China. But the amount of fertiliser being used by farmers in China exceeds the amount used in India. For example, the average use of fertilisers in India is around 69 kg per hectare, whereas farmers in China use an average of 366 kg per hectare.

What is the future of chemical farming in India?
There are many areas in India where foodgrain production has not increased even with the use of such inputs. In many countries such as Japan, farmers use around 300 to 400 kg of fertiliser per hectare. It is another matter that climatic conditions in India are very different from Japan. However, such high levels of fertilisers must not be used to increase production. But I do not think that we will ever reach a level where we have to use 400 kg of fertilisers per hectare. But I do believe that even if we use an average of 80 kg per hectare under the prevailing climatic conditions, we will be able to increase our food production.

Can genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) meet the food demand in Asia, particularly in India? Why are people so apprehensive about GMOs?
We must not confuse ourselves by linking the issue of food security with gmo s. How many crops are being grown at present in the world that have been genetically modified? There are only certain crops that are genetically modified such as cotton, soybean and tomatoes. There is still nothing worth talking about gmo s with regard to wheat. There has been some research on rice. At present, not many gmo s have reached the field level.I do not think that gmo s will change the situation of foodgrains in India in another 10 years.

We should not lay too much emphasis on this issue at the cost of other pressing matters. For instance, farmers in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, are yet to adopt the available technologies in the country. If these technologies are put to use, production in these states will double. But this is not happening. If farmers do not adopt the available technologies, how can we expect them to accept gmo s so readily. I think some organisations may benefit by properly marketing gmo s around the world. However, with cotton and vegetables we need gmo s to reduce the use of pesticides.

With the economy becoming stronger people tend to shift to meat eating. It requires a lot of grain to feed livestock. Therefore, will a change from vegetarian to non-vegetarian food habits affect our foodgrain consumption?
I do not think people in India will ever prefer non-vegetarian food over vegetarian food. In the us and in Europe, people prefer to eat beef and pork. But religion and cultural backgrounds prevent Indians from doing so. Indians are not fond of non-vegetarian food. At best they eat chicken. We did a survey of passengers travelling by Indian Airlines. These were people who could afford non-vegetarian good. But a very large percentage had opted for vegetarian food.

What is wrong with our foodgrain management policy?
The World Food Summit held in 1996 in Rome said there is more than enough food being produced in the world to feed the entire population. Still around 800 million people go hungry. The issue of distribution needs to be managed properly. Today, what is essentially being distributed is the poverty. Even our economists come out with different definitions of poverty. And we are lost in the numbers game. Last year, many economists said that around 40 per cent of India's population are living under the poverty line. Now they are saying that the figure has dropped to 30 per cent.

Can a complete switch to organic farming help us improve the food situation?
I do not think that organic farming in India will ever pick up. We will have to first find out about the sources of organic materials. Whether it is cowdung, organic waste or something else. This is a nice idea, but it is very difficult to implement. There are many countries that can adequately meet their foodgrain requirements. So they can afford to use organic farming. However, we cannot afford to completely bank on organic farming.

Can excessive use of pesticides harm the environment?
Pesticides were allowed in the country to increase foodgrain production. Farmers started using pesticides because they found them useful. Pesticides are being used mostly on cotton, plantation crops and vegetables. But we need to reduce the use of pesticides. It is for this purpose that gmo s should be developed to reduce the use of pesticides. One cannot rule out the use of pesticides in the country if we want to meet the growing food demand.

What do you think is the best way to increase foodgrain production in India without putting too much pressure on the environment?
When people talk about foodgrains, they think they are only talking about food. In fact, the country requires around 250 million tonnes of vegetables and fruits annually. So the real question is how efficiently we can increase our food production, and not foodgrains alone.

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