Soil quality and rainfall are the two factors that are intimately interwoven with food production. Prime Minister Narendra Modi very astutely stressed on the efficient usage of these two elements at his speech on the occasion of the 86th Foundation Day of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) on July 29, 2014, because the land mass available for agriculture is shrinking and losing quality while water/rain reservoirs are also getting depleted. Farmers, he said, fill the stomachs (pet) of others but their earnings (jeb) are yet to be commensurate. He was simply marrying science with the economics of food productivity for societal balance and welfare.
With the use of biotechnology getting commonplace in the last 20 years, overall yields from hybrids and genetically-modified (GM) crops have significantly escalated. Modi was implicitly echoing or endorsing this path to cheaper and higher agri-production. But on July 29 itself, the media reported that field trials of 13 GM crops authorised by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) were indefinitely deferred by the environment ministry due to alleged pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), under the influence of the anti-GM lobby. If RSS is defining policies like the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi did during the UPA regime, it undermines the authority of the government.
Even though Indian agriculture output has risen by an average of 3.7%, and yield by 2.2%, over the last five years, food inflation persisted at about 10% per annum until late last year. If production is significantly increased, food inflation will likely mellow, food and fertiliser subsidies can be gradually phased and exports will get a boost while imports (especially of edible oil) will decline. Higher yield per hectare will also be more remunerative for farmers. By delaying the introduction of GM crops in India, we are ensuring that grains in overseas markets become cheaper while Indian grains/oilseeds become costly and crop diversification remains limited. Given this, the pressure to import cheaper GM food items will build up. Can we afford to de-link ourselves commercially from global trade? Even Bangladesh is growing Bt brinjal. After clearing Bt cotton, the government continues to dither on other crops.
All modes of crop production have their own pros and cons. Organic crops give lesser output and are more expensive. Can they be produced in quantities massive enough to satiate hunger in India?