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Charting an Alternate Path for Indian Agriculture

Posted on March 12th, 2014
There comes a stage when the technology used in any sphere of economic activity reaches a performance plateau where its promises and advantages are outweighed by new knowledge about its negative effects or by sheer economics, where the law of diminishing marginal returns renders every additional rupee or dollar invested in inputs delivering lower returns than the investment. This is the tipping point, where new ideas are required so the gains can be consolidated and built on instead of being frittered away.
Unfortunately, Indian and possibly world agriculture seems to have reached this point of diminishing marginal returns where the negative aspects of the input intensive agriculture we have followed for the last 4 decades have begun to outweigh its benefits.
This is seen from stagnation in yields of important crops in key agricultural belts across the country. Even our traditional bread basket from times immemorial, farming operations in the Indo - Gangetic Plain that stretches from Pakistan, right across Northern India and into Bangladesh have started showing worrying signs of stagnation of yields and deterioration of soil quality. When viewed in the context of a steady increase in our population, these statistics are quite alarming as they indicate a serious undermining of our ability to feed our population. The same alarming signs are visible worldwide.
This negative trend is mirrored right across the world. An international study over an extended period for crucial crops like wheat, rice, soybean and corn, across major producing countries such as China, India, Indonesia and USA clearly showed that yields seem to be stagnating in large tracts of agriculturally important regions in each country.
The problem lies not just with the high input technology but the manner of its implementation, dissemination of information and ultimately its adoption by our farmers. The problem is further exacerbated by deterioration in the nutritive value of our soil, scarcity of water of good quality for irrigation, climate change and lack of a clear cut strategy and policies that address these issues. The greatest impact of the use of this input intensive technology has been on the costs of production as well as yields and the environment. The brunt of these adverse factors will be felt most by our small and marginal farmers who generally lack the resources required.
We are all painfully aware of the consequences of the global financial meltdown caused by risky financial investment by leading financial institutions in the West. We also know that the tragic impact this had on the lives of innocent millions across the globe. If a similar tragedy were to impact something as important as our agriculture and ecology, then the global financial meltdown would seem a mere pinprick. The enormity of the catastrophe would dwarf anything we have ever experienced in the past.
It should be realised that the disastrous consequences of a steep fall in agriculture productivity will be felt especially by those nations which do not have the resources to provide a safety net to their citizens. The developed nations cannot remain immune from this malaise since they too would find their agriculture impacted and global sources of cheap raw material for their industries could dry up.
If we fail to take into account the stark reality of deteriorating soil conditions, the increasing pressure on our limited land resources due to population as well as the demands of infrastructure and creeping urbanisation, then we would be doing a grave injustice to our future generations.
Our march to agricultural self sufficiency rests on five strategic pillars, these are:
  1. High yielding varieties of seed
  2. Use of chemical fertilisers
  3. Crop protection with chemical pesticides
  4. Access to irrigation
  5. High quality of agricultural research, educational institutions and extension
Let us dwell briefly on the first three of these elements of our current strategy and the risks of their adverse economic and environmental impact.
High Yielding Varieties of Seeds & GM Crops
High yielding varieties of basic cereal, pulses and oilseed crops form the backbone of our fight against hunger and malnutrition, these seeds have made India one of the largest producers in the world for a number of agricultural commodities right from rice, wheat and oilseeds to pulses, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables, fibre crops and even milk. High yielding, disease resistant, triploid dwarf strains of wheat and rice introduced by CIMMYT, the institution made famous by the great Dr Norman Borlaug as well as Canadian scientists and IRRI, marked the first step of India’s “Green Revolution” in the early 1970’s. This continued to gather pace, as adaptive research by Indian scientists resulted in the introduction of a stream of high yielding, disease resistant varieties of crops for decades thereafter. These reasonably priced seed enabled Indian farmers to taste success after years of hardship and helped improve the standard of living of countless millions living in rural areas. Without a thriving agricultural base, it might have proved difficult for us to achieve what we have in other sectors.
However in recent years, the trend of introducing new high yielding varieties has shifted increasingly to the private sector. A modification in the Seed Act has only accelerated the process, this together with the entry of large Multi National Corporations and their takeover of Indian seed companies seem to have created a near monopolistic situation which militates against the interest of farmers. Nowhere is this more visible than in the case of genetically modified (GM) crops and hybrid vegetable seeds. The apparent drying up of competitive new public varieties has turned the terms of trade against the farmer and costs of this vital input have increased steeply. An increased incidence of pests and diseases has exposed the soft underbelly of Indian and world agriculture. This could possibly be due to the dangerous loss of genetic diversity on one hand and poor implementation of regulations and sound pest management practices on the other.
This is exemplified by the increased observation of rust pathogens in public varieties of wheat, a crop that has remained resistant to rust for over four decades. If this disease is allowed to grow unchecked, then it can expose the fragility of our agriculture in the face of nature.
Private brands suffer from the same threats, but the farmer faces a double whammy, susceptibility to pests and high prices for the seed. If State policies encourage the propagation of monopolistic practices, then it can only be to the long term disadvantage of the farming community especially our small farmers in rain fed areas, as is happening in the case of GM crops.
Higher salt content in the top soil due to decades of fertiliser application, over reliance of ground water and depleting content of organic matter has made our soils susceptible to formation of crusts, hard pans and rising salinity and alkalinity. Given the erratic rainfall patterns partially attributable to global warming and climate change, farmers find poor germination to be a recurring problem. This forces them to increase the seed rate or suffer poor crop stands. Sometimes the lack of follow up rains after sowing results in poor germination despite the higher application of seeds and necessitates re- sowing, wiping out the farmers investible capital.
It has been observed that farmers even in the largely irrigated tracts of North India are using at least 2 packets of GM cotton seed per acre instead of the recommended rate of 1 packet of 450 grams per acre. Irregular rainfall patterns in the last 3 years at the time of sowing in the last 3 years have resulted in formation of a hard crust on the top soil that has prevented germination and resulted in poor crop stands. This has forced farmers in many parts of North India to go in for sowing once again; as many as 4 packets of seed have been used by farmers in some cases. The situation might be even worse in rainfall dependent states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, and could be an important contributory factor in the never ending spiral of farmer suicides seen in these states, since the cost of seed would form a significant percentage of the total cost of production of the crop (since average yields are much lower in rainfed areas).
The area under cotton in India is about 30 million acres, the excessive requirement of cotton seed has probably made Indian farmers invest an additional Rs 30 billion (USD 500 million) every year on seeds, money that they might have desperately needed elsewhere. The absence of competition has given some companies a free rein to make windfall profits on seed sales as well as royalties ever since GM cotton was introduced in India. The same trend is visible even in USA, where farmers are required to use 10 pounds of GM cotton seeds per acre. If this were to happen in India, the farmers would face an additional outgo of Rs 6000/acre just for seed or Rs 180 billion extra (USD3 billion) annually.
Another area of concern is the incidents being reported of American bollworm (Helicoverpa) and armyworm (Spodoptera) infestation on GM cotton. While the use of this technology has been granted to the seed manufacturers under certain conditions, by and large these seem to be ignored. The strategy of maintaining a refuge (of non GM cotton) in every field is vital for preserving the efficacy of this technology, however this is by and large being ignored and by increasing the pressure of selection on the target pests, raises the risk of a rapid build up of resistance in the target pests to GM crops which could lead to this technology becoming obsolete sooner rather than later. This mechanism of resistance build up is similar to what is well known in the case of chemical pesticides. Unfortunately, the signs are already visible, and painfully so, worldwide. The resistance of bollworms to the Cry1Ac gene a few years ago in India, led to the withdrawal of these varieties from the market and a replacement with the even more pricey GM 2 seeds incorporating an additional gene, Cry2Ab.
However the entire premise of GM crops being the panacea for all types of lepidopteran pests has been severely dented. As areas under GM crops increases all over the world, its limitations are becoming more obvious. Farmers find that they not only need to apply to manage new pests that have filled the temporary vacuum created by the absence of bollworms in the early stages of crop growth, now they have to contend with renewed attacks by caterpillars 90 days after sowing.
While identifying the naturally occurring bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) as a potential donor of genes with entomopathogenic properties, a crucial factor that appears to have been ignored is that the main reason for the failure of leaf eating pests like caterpillars to evolve resistance to the Bt toxin is natural selection and evolution, which has kept the balance, as the pest evolves resistance, the bacterium evolves too to retain its biological edge. However, when a gene is spliced into the cotton genome, it remains to be seen whether this evolution still continues. The initial prognosis, with reports of resistance pouring in is, apparently not.
The second arises from the existence of multiple genes in the donor bacterium which release a cocktail of toxins with differing modes of action. This reduces the possibility of the development of resistance in nature. However, when just 1 or 2 genes are incorporated in the cotton genome (as has been done in GM crops), the number of toxins released is severely limited, this along with a total disregard to regulatory conditions governing the sale of such seed, exponentially increases the possibility of resistance development in the target species.
In the case of GM soybean and corn which were bred for tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate, as many as twenty one different species of weeds have reportedly become resistant to this product and are unaffected at over 2 - 10 times the normal dose. American farmers are now finding that they need to be just as careful in managing the problem of weed resistance in GM corn and soybean as they would have for non GM varieties.
This problem is also exemplified by the arrival of pathogens like rusts of wheat which had been kept under control for the last four decades through advances in plant breeding and genetics. The fact these new pathogenic strains are also resistant to some of our best chemical fungicides threatens our hard won food security. Pathogens such as these do not respect national boundaries and easily circumvent other interventions such as quarantine procedures.
However more resources need to be ploughed into the kind of cooperative global research that made the Green Revolution possible in the 1970’s. Private research with its commercial considerations might not be able to provide long term solutions to the satisfaction of the farming community. The strategy of encouraging GM crops has started to backfire with farmers facing rising costs of production and stagnating yields together with the problem of rising incidents of resistance and the arrival of new pests.
The threat that GM crops pose to biodiversity and contamination of the gene pool to naturally occurring wild varieties as well as non GM varieties cannot be measured easily. The social costs of a hasty introduction of GM crops without the framework to ensure regulatory guidelines are implemented fully can prove to be disastrous in the long term. The licensees, (seed manufacturers) owe it to society to ensure their products are used as directed so that the problem of resistance development and other unintended consequences can be avoided.
When automobiles and electricity was first introduced, they were heralded as great advancements for the betterment of mankind. Sure the benefits these have brought are immeasurable, but it is now recognised that they have brought with them the problem of air pollution which has reached nearly unmanageable proportions. The impact this will have on our health as well as that of our planet is incalculable. This puts immense strain on the finances of countless people as well as the governments of rapidly ageing nations.
The same is true of any new technology; nothing can be considered an unalloyed blessing, more so a one created by a select few and unabashedly plugged across the world with virtually no checks and balances and scant adherence to regulations in most developing nations including India. The long term impacts this technology can have on our environment and ecology have yet to be assessed completely. Already, instances of a new pollution (for want of a better word) caused by GM crops has been observed in the developing world. It has been reported that wild, natural strains of certain crops have been found to contain fragments of the DNA from GM crops. If this is observed across more locations, this “genetic pollution” could threaten our biodiversity.
It is therefore quite clear that with pests and disease overcoming the resistant traits that had been built up over the years, together with the loss of genetic diversity, could put our entire strategy of self sufficiency at risk. A new more holistic approach would therefore be required to manage such problems and unlock the genetic potential of our crops to feed our ever growing population.
Chemical Fertilizers:
Prices of most fertilisers are governed by costs of petroleum products such as natural gas or in the case of mineral based fertilisers, the gap between demand and supply. Both petroleum products as well as minerals are fast depleting natural reserves and are therefore prone to price escalations and thereby stretch the public exchequer for meeting subsidies and also skew the trade imbalance, deplete our foreign exchange reserves and contribute to our current account deficit (where the Government spends more than it earns by way of taxes). India imports all its requirements non urea fertilisers and about 25% of its urea. The fertiliser subsidy is likely to swell to over Rs 100 billion (USD 1.67 billion) in 2013. Each time prices of crude oil and petroleum products goes up, our yawning trade deficit widens further, subsidies escalate and inflationary pressures increase, contributing to the decline in the value of the Indian rupee.
Subsidies also skew consumption of fertilisers, encouraging farmers to increase the use of cheaper urea based fertilisers resulting in a nutritional imbalance that can threaten long term fertility of our soil. It is well known that a higher application of nitrogenous fertilisers like urea predisposes our crops to certain types of diseases and pests.
Fertilisers are not generally perceived as toxic, but studies have shown otherwise. In fact, due to this lack of awareness, fertilisers are more prone to overuse and waste with dangerous consequences to the environment as well as our health.
Leaching of nitrogenous fertilisers also pollutes ground water and has the potential to threaten the health of our population and disrupt marine ecology, threatening food supplies to coastal populations that rely on fishing. Eutrophication of lakes, rivers and even oceans has been observed. This problem has been extensively studied and reported in the US.
Excessive nitrates in ground or surface water can lead to a condition called methemoglobinemia in young infants also known as the blue baby syndrome, where the functioning of haemoglobin is impaired. If diagnosis is delayed in serious cases then the damage it causes due to anoxia is not reversible.
Run off from fields and farms that contain excessive urea have been implicated in the formation of toxic blooms of red and green algae in oceans that can release toxins which can kill the fish that feed on them and move up the food chain.
Phosphatic fertilisers come with their own share of problems. Most phosphatic fertilisers that are applied by farmers are adsorbed by soil particles and rendered insoluble and therefore unavailable to crops. They tend to accumulate as complexes of calcium and Iron phosphates that raise soil pH and suppress the availability of critical micronutrients such as Zinc (Zn). This has the effect of impairing crop growth, increasing cost of application of micro nutrients and also increasing the potential damage from certain soil borne pathogens such as Phytophtora. The increasing incidence of symptoms caused by this pathogen is now seen in crops as diverse as potato, cotton and even citrus.
Potassic fertilisers are also almost exclusively mineral based with known world reserves depleting rapidly which can only result in increased prices in future as demand from developing countries in Africa and Asia picks up. These fertilisers are highly soluble in water and therefore susceptible to leaching. With each irrigation or rain event, over 70% of these fertilisers leach beyond the root zone and are rendered unavailable to crops. This represents an avoidable waste of scarce resources of the farmer.
Intensive agriculture has had the unintended consequence of depleting organic matter content in soil. This depletion is also responsible for excessive leaching losses of fertiliser and pollution of ground and surface water. Increased application of chemicals also has a deleterious effect on beneficial soil microbes which is disadvantageous to the crop. This, together with lower organic content results in reduced soil agglomeration and water holding capacity. This creates hard pans on the soil surface which hampers germination and crop stands and thereby yields.
So it is obvious that the possibility of increasing production through increased application of chemical fertilisers is also not without serious risk to our soil and the environment. Aside from this, the trend towards increasing prices of fertilisers would also tend to limit their use as farmers try to cut down costs of production.
With soil condition and fertility likely to become a critical area, new ideas would be required to maintain the upward trend of productivity without cutting down costs.
Chemical Pesticides
For long, chemical pesticides have been the weapon of choice in our battle against pests and disease that cause serious crop losses. The arrival of DDT and BHC heralded an era of affordable tools that could provide long term control over a broad spectrum of pests. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” changed people’s views about pesticides across the globe. We became aware of their hazardous side effects and the focus of industry was directed at introducing more pest specific products with a smaller environmental footprint.
However advancements have come at a price, and with many nations signing WTO agreements and resultant lack of competition from manufacturers of generics, prices of newer pesticides have risen steeply, (in some cases more than 30 times over the unit price of older generics) raising the costs of production of the farmer.
The success of newer products encourages their widespread and uncontrolled use, causing the target pests to develop resistance quickly. Another factor could be the manufacture of variants of any new chemical class of pesticides which further aggravates the problem. The development of cross resistance to differing classes of pesticides limits the only known tool for managing such problems, namely the rotation of pesticides.
Another worry is that with pests developing resistance to GM crops, farmers will be forced to use pesticides in increasing quantities which will accelerate the development of super bugs that would be resistant to our known best techniques.
Lax regulatory regimes in many countries lead to rampant misuse of pesticides and unethical promotion by manufacturers which further exacerbates the problem. The involvement of research institutions to alert regulatory agencies about mistakes in recommendations which can have undesirable consequences is extremely important as the links given below show. An alert and independent education and research establishment is crucial for safeguarding the environment as well as farmers from inadvertent misuse of expensive products.
The lessons learnt by developed countries about the side effects of newer pesticides do not appear to be well disseminated in developing countries. Therefore the scope for their misuse and the development of resistance becomes even more serious. One way out is through homologation of registration requirements and a free exchange of information.
The Indian agrochemicals industry cannot be isolated from these global trends, with patent protection guaranteed by our accession to WTO, prices of new actives introduced mainly by MNC’s have raised the costs of plant protection steeply. The Indian industry, once throbbing with innovation has seen the speed of introduction of new generic actives ingredients (manufactured from the basic stage by Indian companies) decline steeply over the last 7 years.
In the absence of proper advice, farmers are forced to use either higher doses or cocktails of pesticides which can be extremely injurious to their own health and not just the environment. If vegetables sold in India were to be analysed for pesticide residues, then a significant portion would probably be classified as unfit for human consumption.
The instances of misuse of pesticides in India and the development of pesticides resistance are too numerous to mention. From bollworms in cotton to brown plant hoppers in rice, the list of pesticides which have been rendered ineffective is rife with the epitaphs of some of the best known active ingredients of our time.
Another concern is the rapid spread of new pathogens that seem to defy conventional control by chemical pesticides. These pathogens now threaten entire nations, even entire species of plants and needless to add livelihoods of people and their way of life.
A few examples are given below:
  1. Sudden Oak Death caused by Phytophthora ramorum is causing havoc to oak trees in the forest of Europe and USA. This pathogen has overcome some of the best quarantine systems of the world and the best of conventional management techniques to threaten an entire species of forest tree which is eponymous with the way of life and landscape of entire nations – the majestic oak.
  1. HLB (Huanglongbing) a epidemic of citrus caused by a phloem limited bacterium called candidates liberibacter is sounding alarm bells the world over. This is spread by the Asian Citrus Psyllid, (Diaphorina citri). This pathogen has decimated the once thriving citrus industry in parts of Thailand and now threatens the rest of the world. This too has defied conventional management techniques including chemical pesticides.

The list of pests and diseases that are now proving difficult to manage using conventional chemicals is only increasing.

With the developed nations led by the EU tightening the noose on pesticides and the rate of new product invention tapering off compared to the number of active ingredients going off the market, it is time we look at a new direction for managing our problem pests.
Another fact that is often lost sight of by us when we are discussing the adverse impact that pesticides can have on the environment is the equally serious impact that apparently innocuous sounding wetting agents can also have.
In 1993, the European Union observed that certain types of non ionic wetting agents can actually have a far more serious impact than previously imagined. It was found that some commonly used wetting agents containing nonyl phenol (NP) or nonyl phenol ethoxylates (NPE’s) as well as other chemically similar compounds can act as endocrine disruptors at rates of parts per billion. These chemicals were found to be carcinogenic to fish and potentially to other forms of life. The fact that these were stable compounds with a tendency to adhere to certain soil components further increases the risk they pose to the environment.
The EU promptly passed legislation severely restricting their use, classifying them as substances of high concern. However, there is an apparent lack of dissemination of this information in developing countries and such products or pesticides containing such products continue to be used with impunity in other countries.
A Step in a New Direction for World Agriculture
This why, we have evolved a new system of farming using eco friendly techniques which promises to deliver results where conventional techniques and approaches have failed. We call this the STEP System (Systematic Treatment for Enhanced Productivity). A system created after years of field studies, a technique and products born out of a rich experience tackling difficult problems affecting our farmers across the country for over 3 decades.
Our STEP system is designed to help our farmers meet the ominous challenges of:
  • An unpredictable climate leading to drought
  • Declining soil productivity arising out of current practices
  • Spiralling prices of inputs and reducing profitability of farm operations
  • Resistance and cross resistance of pests to conventional chemicals
  • Adverse environmental impact of current chemical intervention