||FOR FOOD OR CASH?
First, let us understand what food crops and cash crops are.
Every agricultural commodity that is not produced to merely satisfy the needs of the farming family is sold in the market. This means, the surplus is put up for sale. But the surplus available for sale varies from crop to crop.
In case of food crops, the surpluses are generally less and their proportions vary widely according to factors like the size of holding. But for non-food crops like cotton and sugarcane, almost all the production is available for sale (except what is kept as seed). Such crops are called cash crops or commercial crops. Even food crops with large marketable surpluses (say above 50 per cent), can be regarded as cash crops.
So, cash crop is a crop grown for money. They attract a greater demand in developed nations, and have export value. Hence, cash crops fetch more money for the producer – the farmers and thus, the country.
But, a shift to cash crops poses a great risk to household food security and in the long run, to national food security.
Rural households in India reduce the risk of food insecurity by producing their own food. But more and more farmers, lured by the immediate gains of cash crops, are diverting from the traditional food crops and focusing solely on a particular variety. The problem is, until the new cash crops start generating a profit, such a move creates an ‘ad interim food-security gap’ or food insecure situation during the period of wait.
According to an International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) study, these are some of the short-term results of shifting from food crops to cash crops:
Less land was available for growing food crops (because the land was being used for cash crops).
The lack of land reduced the amount of food produced for the family and, therefore, the food supply.
Most of the profits were eaten up by the middlemen and moneylenders anyway, because small farmers hardly ever take their wares to the market themselves.
If there is a shortage of food in the family, invariably the womenfolk end up with barely anything on their plates.
As if this was not enough, there came a bigger temptation – biofuels.
||FEED PEOPLE OR CARS?
Fossil fuels are the prime contributors to climate change. Emissions from vehicles fuelled by gasoline, factories that burn oil are now turning the planet into a boiling pot. So the world community is striving hard to find alternatives. And the biofuel industry has emerged as a major player in the arena. Biofuels are petrol additives such as ethanol and biodiesel produced from plant crops.
Worldwide, vast tracts of land, that previously grew food crops, are now being converted to produce crops that produce oil! For example, US - the largest producer of ethanol from corn - aims to reduce petroleum consumption by 20 per cent in the next 10 years. For this, it plans to divert one-third of its maize crop to biofuel production this year. The same shift is visible in the other biofuel producing countries like Brazil (the largest producer of ethanol from sugarcane), UK, Germany, Spain and France.
|Experts predict that biofuel targets could create 600 million additional hungry people in the world by 2025.
But if not these lands, where else can these crops be grown? One answer may be ‘wastelands’, tracts that are not fertile enough to grow food.
But a country like India needs to be careful. Because land is at premium here, and every patch of soil is used either for growing crops or fodder. Even the so-called ‘wastelands’ provide livelihood for innumerous communities. So, growing these oil-yielding plant varieties here may spell doom for our farmers and shepherds who literally live off these seemingly useless tracts.
The challenge is to ensure that industries, lured by the oil-producing plants, do not jump into the bandwagon and bypass the local communities!
Another huge temptation for Indian farmers is of using genetically modified high yielding variety (HYV) of crops.
Genetically modified seeds and crops may boost food production, grow in poor soil, and resist disease, bad weather and pest damage. Then what’s the problem? There are some apprehensions like:
Widespread crop failure after using GM seeds. All GM crops have identical genetic structure. So if a fungus, a virus, or a pest attacks a particular GM crop, the entire area gets affected.
GM seeds assure high yield, but only if they are fortified with specific pesticides and fertilisers.
These seeds are bio-engineered to be purchased every year, as they last only one harvest. This means they cannot be reused the next year, ultimately adding to the input costs of the farmers.
There is another major factor that threatens India’s food security.
|CHANGING WITH THE CLIMATE
We all know what is climate change. But did you know that this is a serious threat to our food future?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international committee set up by the UN to track global warming says, “for even small temperature increases of 1-2 degrees... yields for rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 per cent by 2020”.
Like I mentioned a while ago, India’s agriculture depends heavily on annual monsoons. So, unstable rainfall pattern, increase in drought and floods, intensified storms and other calamities — all the adverse effects of climate change — will cripple our capacity to grow food crops.
Panditayen: So what can we do? Isn’t there anyway we can fight this crisis?
Pandit ji: We don’t really have a choice any more, do we? But first, let’s list out the main factors that have led to this. Though it’s a menace that looms over the entire world, let us focus on our own country.
Panditayen: Yes. I don’t want to see Mohan and his family starving to death.
Pandit ji: India does not really face a major shortage of food grains as yet. The key problem here is how much can the people afford to pay? Even if the food prices take a small jump, a person like Mohan will starve because his purchasing power is very low. So the government may take short-term measures like banning export of basic staples, to ensure that the domestic markets have enough supply, but the real problem will not go away. Also blocking exports will hurt our farmers.
Panditayen: (Holds her head with both her hands) This is terrible Pandit ji!
Pandit ji: Yes, but don’t panic. Didn’t I tell you that India has been blessed with enough land resources to feed twice its population? Unfortunately, we have not taken care of our soil, nor have we made proper use of it. So a vast portion of our lands remain unirrigated, low yielding, growing not more than one crop per year. No wonder, our economy booms, and the industries flourish, but the growth rate of the agriculture sector remains as slow paced as ever.
Panditayen: But doesn’t it provide livelihood for a huge section of our population?
Pandit ji: Yes, around 60 per cent. But now it is absolutely crucial to change all this. India will have to become food secure, locally, to cater to its growing population. And to achieve this, productivity of its lands will have to grow several fold. We have enormous untapped potential. We just need to invest in the right technology, train our farmers to use these, encourage them to make the most use of their lands. To grow enough for themselves, and for the rest of the country.