Monday, January 9, 2012


Agriculture is vital to the survival of this planet and as long as each human being needs 2000 kC energy equivalent of food every day, the land has to provide it not only for the present generation but also for all those arriving in future perpetually. Historically agricultural practices have evolved from a purely manual operation into industrial scale deploying many mechanized contraptions for tilling, harvesting, threshing, cleaning and storage. Of course the degree of mechanization may vary from country to country depending on the extent of manpower involved in agriculture. In an affluent country like the US a very minuscule segment of the population is associated with food production with high degree of agricultural mechanization becoming inevitable while in India more than 70% of the population living in rural areas are involved in one way or the other with agricultural avocation. In such a diverse situation how is this planet going to meet its food needs in the coming years? An interesting question indeed!

If one looks at the evolution of agriculture in most industrialized countries, there have been sufficient incentives and opportunities for the farming community members to migrate to industrial areas to make fortunes. A farmer family invariably lost its able bodied members who did not opt for agriculture and progressively the number of farming people started dwindling with fewer men available for tilling the land. This was the driver for mechanization which required fewer and fewer people to manage cultivation and larger and larger farms emerging during this transition period. Naturally those who still continue tilling their land are aging and naturally with progress of time average age of the farmer tends to go high. If this trend is continued how many farmers will be left to manage the land and how long these "old" hands continue to be active? Naturally such an attrition trend can grievously hurt food production adversely when the need of the hour is increasing the production to keep in step with the population growth.    

In a provocative report recently, California, the biggest state in the US had an introspection regarding the future of its agriculture in the light of its aging farmer population. As the average age of farmers in this state inch toward 60, the state which contributes 12% of that country's exports of agri-products is at its wits end as to how agriculture can be made more attractive to younger generation who only can sustain its pre-eminent role in the country. According to the experts this state will have to double its food out put by 2050 to meet the increasing food needs which can be achieved only if new players emerge in the agri-sector. More over the agri-industry employs more than 0.8 million people indirectly highlighting its economic importance for the state. The realization, that the age profile of the farmer population needs to be reversed for the survival of the industry, is prompting the state to consider taking pro-active actions now so that any major crisis in the food front is avoided.

One redeeming feature in the political and social environment in the US is the new awakening among the citizens regarding the critical importance of food safety and adequacy which has spawned citizen led movements in many urban areas to plunge into agriculture and produce foods locally from available urban lands. Though this phenomenon cannot be viewed as a movement back to the land but reflects the concern of average citizen to contribute his might to solve the food problem. More aptly it can be called some sort of a revolution happening in American agriculture production front with its own humble contribution. One can only appreciate the new spirit among new entrepreneurs who are installing mini-farms on rooftops in urban areas and market gardens in back and front yards across the country. Vacant city lots are more and more being employed as community gardens, with plots available for any resident to rent. Many suburban residents are combining their capital to lease land, and organize community-supported agriculture programs where shares of farm produce are sold directly to the public, cutting out expensive corporate middlemen like packers, distributors and grocers. In short, demand for local food is booming and so is production. 

Spare a thought to a country like India where the planners are blissfully engaged in activities of self perpetuation ignoring the future. All that the government is concerned centers around vote banks and massive subsidies and distributing foods at throw away prices in the name of hunger and poverty to increase the vote share of the ruling parties. There is not even a whiff of reforms in the agricultural sector and mass suicides of farmers continue unabated with no one at Delhi too much bothered about it. While two decades of open economy has served to boost the industry, both manufacturing as well as service sectors, agriculture is progressively being marginalized putting the national food security at grave risk.

With Green Revolution practically killing the soil health across the width and length of the country, increased productivity remains a pipe dream and added to this the farmer population is aging fast with no replacement in sight due to high rate of urban migration. Look at the two critical food areas-edible oil and pulses where perennial imports are sustaining the population and in spite of the knowledge that these two areas required critical government inputs for the last two decades, nothing much has been done. While China has seized its opportunities to expand agriculture dramatically during last few years, Indian efforts have been too meager to make any impact. At this rate, just like the farmer looking at the heaven praying for rains, the citizens in this country may also have to do the same to have a decent life keeping the hunger pangs away!


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