Can farming be turned into a profitable profession?

Can farming be turned into a profitable profession?

A farmer tells his son, “Study well and get a job or you will suffer like me”

Ajay Vir Jakhar
A Farmer & Chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj (Farmers’ Forum India)

This is not an isolated warning by a hapless father, but a reality that plays out time and again across villages in the developing world. Parents don’t want their children to grow up to be a farmer. Governments across the world are seeking 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 on the fear that the urban electorate will vote the incumbent government out of power on the issue of rising food inflation without caring about the impact of depressed prices on farmers. Every government deliberates on increasing food productivity but for a successful transformation, policy-makers have to make farming a profitable profession.

Ironically, food producers are themselves suffering from hunger, poverty and malnutrition. A transformation is never easy. Focus should not be on just solving these problems, as these are actually the consequences of a bigger issue that needs to be resolved: The issue of a majority of the world population practicing an unprofitable profession. I am reminded of the words of Albert Einstein: ‘A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem’’ This is a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces need to fit in. A lot of those pieces are not on the farm. Where do we begin? We begin by involving farmers in the decision making process. Animal husbandry, fisheries and poultry are a 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.

The puzzle becomes more complex with sustained action by foreign funded non government organisations (NGOs) against Indian research systems that are more articulate in advocating a particular kind of action, ill-prepared politicians and subservient government officials.

The 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 poorer countries suffer as their produce becomes less competitive. Subsequently it even discourages local investment in agriculture research and development, which is the key for any successful transformation. Communities can become less vulnerable by adopting new technologies and practices as a resource liberating mechanism. 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 historic experience also cautions us to the pitfalls of unequal agreements.

From where did we start? Population growth has driven productivity and since we started on that path 10,000 years ago, there has been no turning back. It is said that the environment is what we are making of it. In pre-historic times, when humans were hunters and food gatherers, no more than a few million people could sustain on earth. But improvements in technology allowed us to practice agriculture and constantly increase production; and the world population expanded to the present 7.2 billion. It will increase to 9 billion by 2050 before stabilising. As a consequence, in the next 50 years we will need to produce as much food as we produced in the last 10,000 years. And that too in the face of climate change. Climate change is only being properly understood now. It is going to be devastating for areas lying between 23.5 degrees North (the Tropic of Cancer) and 32 degrees North. That is the heartland of agrarian India. The only thing we can do is get prepared by investing in agriculture research and development (R&D).

The fact that agriculture R&D is suffering is also evident from the fact that food inflation is at a three-year high and supply is unable to keep up with the rising demand for food. The farmer is unable to cope with price volatility, climatic shocks, or even to pull himself out of poverty and his family continues to suffer from malnutrition. Incidentally, investment in agriculture R&D is the second fastest way to end poverty and malnutrition after the development of rural roads. After the success of the Central Government’s road development programme ‘Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojna’, a lot has been done by successive governments to connect rural India with decent roads. Funding of agriculture research has meanwhile slowed down.

The expenditure of the private sector on agriculture research and development is humongous (IN INDIA?) with Monsanto spending $1533 million, Syngenta $1253 million and Bayer $1167 million in 2012. On paper, India possibly spends more money on agriculture R&D but most of that money goes to run universities and pay salaries. I could hazard a guess that 90% of the budget is for things like salary and only 10% goes into hardcore research and is comparable to that of a private company’s R&D expenditure. This is notwithstanding the fact that Indian research institutions have not done enough for farmers in the last many years that they can feel proud about. Even if we take India government figures at face value, India spends half of what China does on agriculture R&D. India’s expenditure as a percentage of agriculture GDP is 10 times less than that of the US; and also as percentage of the total GDP, India spends much less than Brazil, Malaysia and even Kenya.

I think that our policy–makers must introspect on the fact that the dissatisfaction on the farms in other parts of the world will inevitably reach their doorstep in forms such as migrations and terrorism, if allowed to linger long. Concluding a workshop at the World Economic Forum (THIS YEAR?), all agreed with me when I said, “Farmers were in a deep well and expect those with more resources and opportunities to thrown down a rope so that they can climb out of the well and be self-sufficient”.

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