Friday, August 5

Revamp Agriculture - Some Suggestions

by Dr. M. S. Bajwa

Agriculture in our country in general and Punjab in particular, is at crossroads economically, technologically and ecologically. In fact, the scenario has become dismal in the country in view of decline in growth rate of foodgrain output to 1.17% (a rate lower than that of population), a silent epidemic of malnutrition, decreasing profitability, deteriorating socio-economic conditions (even ecological-suicides by farmers) and opening up of competitive quality-conscious global market under the WTO regime. At a time when our agriculture must create "productivity-quality-economic revolution", complexities in improving farm-economy (at small and marginal farms, in particular) are increasing because of continuing over-exploitation of natural resources (biodiversity, soil, water, environment), inefficient management of inputs (seed, fertilizers, water, pesticides, energy) and rather inadequate market infrastructure. Since our agro-economic condition has reached a critical stage revamping of the conventional-farming system is paramount.
Agriculture has to be revitalized so that it becomes a commercial activity.
This calls for development of "technology (knowledge)-based farm-economy" through a paradigm shift from conventional-farming towards eco-region specific precision-farming strategies. The concept offers cost-effective and efficient adoption of micro farm-management technologies for integrated management of gene (for quantity and quality), soil-health, water, pests, energy, natural resources and eco-system. The selection and management of farming or cropping systems are to be specifically based upon site-suitability, keeping in view in-farm and in-region differences in crop-responses (over distance, depth and time) to variability in soil characteristics, water availability, groundwater behavior, pest problems and other sustainability factors. In each region adequate crop and product-specific modern infrastructure for harvesting, post-harvest handling (crop maturity standards, drying, grading, pretreatment, packaging, etc), processing, storage, quality control, and assured remunerative marketing will be the basic requirement. Some products like fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, basmati-rice, floriculture, soybean-products, honey, mushroom, etc. may be treated as "extreme focus items" and promoted for exports. For adopting precision-farming on a large scale, in addition to the present land-use and soil-survey systems, remote sensing, geographic information system (GIS) and other tools of information technology (IT) can be used to create different kinds of maps and computer models for guiding farmers on site-specific soil-water-fertilizer-pest-crop management and policy planners on setting up of post-harvest processing, marketing and other infrastructure. Such a farming system will ensure maximization of production-efficiency and profitability and minimization of negative impacts on agro-ecosystem.
Various issues related to agricultural diversification (rice-wheat, in particular) have already been amply debated. However, the generalized diversification schemes proposed earlier (for rice in particular) need to be restructured, in view of the fact that success of the alternative crops will depend upon (in addition to availability of remunerative market) crop-specific site-suitability and adoption of other precision-farming practices. For example: crops like maize, pulses, most of the fruits and vegetables, etc. can not replace rice in salt-affected, high water-table soils; cotton will not replace rice in high water-table areas unless adequate drainage is provided, soybean will not be successful in sandy, low-organic matter, high-concretion, saline soils; rice should be withdrawn from light-textured sandy soils and areas receiving poor quality saline irrigation water. It may also be emphasized that genetic-diversity must be maintained to prevent large-scale failures due to breakout (epidemic) of pest (insect, disease, weed) attack. The state should have a ?bio-diversity act? to effectively conserve and manage biodiversity not only of natural vegetation but also of the cultivated crops.
Though Punjab-Agro has given the initiation-push to the concept of contract farming for diverting some areas from rice-wheat to other cash crops. To commercialize the system of contract farming, different public and private sector and multinational agencies (under pro-actively declared public-policies) should supply quality seed or planting material of suitable variety or hybrid and other inputs, provide guidance to the farmers about cost and eco-efficient crop production and protection. They should also assure procurement at remunerative pre-negotiated prices and declared buy-back arrangements and take care of post-harvest handling and processing, quality control, brand development and marketing. Since the system will be highly input-intensive and exploitive, its long-term effects will have to be watched.
A global approach to produce high quality products (fresh or processed) is necessary keeping in view the fact that certain countries even conduct DNA tests to determine quality before allowing imports of agricultural products.
This calls for development and adoption of high yielding crops and varieties that have the consumer-acceptable and export-oriented quality traits. For example, Karnal bunt resistant wheat containing more than 12% protein, strong gluten basmati rice having length/breadth ratio more than 2, maize having high lysine and tryptophan, brassica oil seed having less than 2% erucic acid, potato for processing having less than 0.2% sugar, etc., etc.
Adoption of Hi-Tech horticultural technologies (protected cultivation in green houses, quick detection and control of diseases, appropriate post-harvest handling and marketing) is becoming a necessity to produce high-quality fruits, vegetables, flowers and medicinal plants. The fact that global standards of quality and bio-safety regulations have come to stay, farmers, entrepreneurs and traders have to be appropriately trained and given adequate quality control support through state-of-the-art quality control laboratories, which should be established in different regions. A sound rural agro-processing industrial base must be established through participatory efforts of workers (skilled and unskilled), entrepreneurs and policy-makers to ensure value-addition of agricultural produce, minimize post-harvest losses (about 5-15% in cereals and oilseeds, 20-30% in semi-perishable and 30-50% in perishable vegetables and fruits), provide gainful on-farm and off-farm employment to at least 50% of the rural men and women and control environmental degradation. To promote agro-processed products in the international markets, modern technologies have to be adopted in terms of production, post-harvest handling (crop maturity standards, grading, pre-treatment, packaging, transportation, etc.) and quality control. This will require restructuring of infrastructure, institutional, agro-industrial, bureaucratic, credit, market (domestic and export) and other support systems. Unnecessary requirements of getting licenses for installing agro-industry in rural areas (e.g. processing of basmati rice) must be withdrawn.
For revamping of agriculture to be globally competitive, development of modern storage facility is a pre-requisite. Public and private sectors should create large-sized professionally managed certified warehouse and silos storage capacities. The purchase of grains can be made and regulated (also payments to the farmers) right at the sites of warehouses or silos, where the produce is to be graded, dried, and stored. Small and micro-sized silos (100 tones capacity) can also be installed even at village level, and managed by the panchayat or farmers-association. This will efficiently check wastages, eliminate storage contamination/diseases, conserve the identity of different varieties and attract prospective domestic and global buyers because of the assurance about quality of the material being purchased. The state government will have to frame and implement the rules and regulations for efficient control and management of this system. Commercialization of agriculture will demand existing out-dated market-infrastructure and support services to be modernized to meet the requirements of entrepreneurs and farmers (bulk producers of agro-export products), exporters and other agencies. Establishment of ?commodity-specific market-promotion cell? and ?intelligence net-work? in each zone will ensure rapid dissemination of information to the producers about requirements of prospective importing markets, latest domestic and global production trends, domestic and foreign competitors, required commodity-specific quality standards and timely accessibility of the farmers to the global markets. Marketing of seasonal and perishable (horticultural and others) products would require systematization of appropriate on-farm post-harvest handling and processing, packing, brand development, cold storage, low cost environment-friendly cool chambers, refrigerated transportation and appropriate sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures. We have to be pro-active in adopting a "total market approach" (right from the sites of production till the product reaches consumers) keeping in view expanding global economy and challenges emerging with the removal of "Quantitative Restrictions" under the WTO regime.
Future calls for greater emphasis on developing multidisciplinary partnerships and symbiotic linkages between farmers, technology generators and disseminators, agro-industry, market system (promotion and intelligence) and public/private organizations. Particular areas in which partnerships can be strengthened include seed industry, bio fertilizers, bio pesticides, use of equipment, food processing and agro-industry, quality control, agri-business, market intelligence, etc. The system needs to have a declared policy for "public-private-farmer partnerships". Self-help farmer-associations involving educated rural youth and small and marginal farmers at village or zone level and giving them the required technical, public-policy and credit support, can help in rapid adoption of modern systems of management of inputs, post-harvest handling and processing, marketing/agribusiness, capital formation, infrastructure development at the farm.
The emerging competitive expanding global economy demands integration of agricultural productivity with economics and adoption of holistic knowledge-intensive integrated-farming systems approach. We must take advantage of the genetic, technological and information and communication revolutions in revitalizing the systems of farm-technology generation, dissemination and its efficient adoption. Adequate public and private financial investment in agriculture and allied activities will, however, be vital. Future technological recommendations to the farmers should be based on extra productivity and monetary returns per unit of financial investment or per unit of applied input. Our farmers (given proper training, support, incentives) have the potential to rapidly adopt the recommended technologies and help the country in facing emerging socio-economic challenges.
(Dr. M.S. Bajwa is former Director of Research, P. A. U., Ludhiana)

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