Oct 1, 2013 – A farmer tells his child: ‘Study well and get a job or you will suffer like me.’

The plea from the hapless farmer to his child is not an isolated one, but a reality that plays out time and again across villages in the developing world. Parents do not want their children to farm. As governments across the world clamour to avoid urban civilian unrest triggered by rising food prices since 2008, farmers are increasingly being considered as mere suppliers of cheap food. India imports onions fearing that the urban electorate will vote the incumbent government out of power over rising food inflation. There are no such worries on account of depressed prices for farmers.

Ironically, food producers are themselves suffering from hunger, poverty and malnutrition. No transformation is ever easy, but this farm conundrum is like a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces do not seem to fit. A lot of those pieces do not even reside in the farm, and the question is: where does one begin the search? A logical answer would suggest that one begins by involving farmers in the decision making process. Animal husbandry, fisheries and poultry are means of quickly supplementing small farm family income. Risk mitigation, weather forecasting, access to transparent markets, effective regulatory mechanism, road connectivity, bridging the yield gaps are some of the required steps as experience has proved. Partnerships with the private sector need to be forged and trade across boundaries needs to be encouraged.

These are very important tools to employ but experience also cautions one about the pitfalls of unfair agreements. Prices of major commodities in the world are dependent on subsidies given to farmers in rich countries, which distort prices to the point that farmers in poor countries suffer as their produce becomes less competitive. Subsequently, it even disincentivizes local investment in agriculture
research and development, which is the key for any successful transformation. The puzzle becomes complex with sustained action against Indian research systems by foreign-funded NGOs that are more articulate in advocating a particular kind of action to ill-prepared politicians and subservient government officials.

How did things get this complex? Population growth has driven productivity for the past 10,000 years. It has been said that the environment is what we are making of it. In the prehistoric times, when humans were hunters and food gatherers, no more than few million people could be sustained on the earth. Improvements in technology allowed the practice of agriculture with constantly increasing production. The world population has expanded to 7.2 billion and will increase to nine billion by 2050 before stabilizing. As a consequence, the world will need to produce as much food in the next 50 years as it did in the last 10,000 years and that in the face of climate change. Climate change is only beginning to be understood now with its devastating impact on regions between 23.50 north – called the Tropic of Cancer – and 320 north. That is the heartland of agrarian India.

The question is: does India have any option, but to prepare for this threat by investing in agriculture research and development? That R&D in agriculture is suffering is evident from the fact that food inflation is at a three-year high and supply is unable to keep up with the rising demand. The farmer is unable to cope
with price volatility, climatic shocks or even to pull himself out of poverty while also suffering from malnutrition. Government apathy persists despite the knowledge that the investment in agriculture R&D is the second fastest way to end poverty and malnutrition (after development of rural roads). The successful
implementation of the road construction programme ‘Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojna’ has led to improved connectivity in rural India with decent roads. Funding of agriculture research has, however, shown no such alacrity in the government space.

The expenditure of the private sector on agriculture research and development, however, is humongous with Monsanto spending $1,533 million, Syngenta $1,253 million and Bayer $1,167 million in 2012, to cite some examples. On paper, theoretically India possibly spends more but much of it (possibly 90 per cent) is expended on running universities, paying salaries and probably, only 10 per cent goes into hard research. This is notwithstanding the fact that Indian research institutions have not done enough for farmers to feel proud in many years. Even if the government’s figures are taken at face value, India spends half of what China does on agriculture R&D. India’s expenditure as a percentage of the agriculture GDP is 10 times less than the USA’s. As a percentage of its GDP, India spends much less than Brazil, Malaysia and even Kenya!

This is where the country needs to introspect if sustainability is to be restored to agriculture and in the lives of those who practice it. Failing this, the dissatisfaction
on the farms in other parts of the world will inevitably reach the doorstep of the financially well-endowed, in forms such as migrations and terrorism.