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India Grapples With Stagnating Food Production

During last four decades, India dramatically improved crop yields and began growing enough food for a vast country. But now the populous nation is grappling with a looming agriculture crisis in some of its most prosperous farming regions.

Bhupinder Singh grows rice and wheat on his 10-acre farm in Sohian village in India's richest farming state, Punjab. But in recent years his harvests have either been smaller or have stagnated, despite his use of more synthetic fertilizers in the soil.

Singh says he will have to add more bags of urea than he did earlier to improve his crop yield. He says the soil has become weak.

Agriculture scientists blame his predicament largely on overuse of chemical fertilizers, especially urea. In the 1960s, to raise food production for a populous country, India gave its farmers high yielding varieties of seeds, and heavily subsidized fertilizers to make them affordable for farmers.

The "Green Revolution" transformed agriculture in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. It helped India overcome decades of food scarcity, become the world's second largest producer of wheat and rice, build huge buffer stocks, and even export food grains.

But circumstances have changed dramatically. Farmers are now plagued with degraded soils, depleted ground water, and stagnant crop yields. This is largely because liberal use of nitrogen fertilizers such as urea has disturbed the soil chemistry, robbing it of valuable nutrients. Farmers began relying heavily on urea in 1991, when subsidies on most other fertilizers were scrapped or reduced, making it the cheapest.

Now farmers are caught in a vicious cycle. They use heavier doses of urea to coax the same yields from their land, but this degrades the soil even more. It also increases the crops' thirst for water, prompting farmers to drill deeper to extract groundwater for irrigation. But as a result groundwater is running out.

Farm scientist M.S. Swaminathan, who helped usher in the "green revolution," says these unsustainable farming practices have been encouraged by bad government policies.

"This region has been doing more or less land mining and water mining. It is no more agriculture, it is mining. Water has gone down and down' said Swaminathan. "Part of it is due to wrong public policy, for example free supply of electricity to pump out more ground water, what I call ecological suicide. That is unnecessarily done for political reasons. Similarly government only subsidizes nitrogenous fertilizer with the result there is no balance in the use of fertilization," Swaminathan added.

There have been numerous calls to rollback the fertilizer subsidies, and levy electricity charges on farmers. But successive governments have been reluctant to anger farmers who form a huge voting bloc.

Now, the government has announced a new subsidy program starting in April to encourage farmers to use a better mix of nutrients. But urea may continue to be liberally sprinkled, because the subsidy on it remains intact, although its price has been raised marginally.

Environmental groups have been urging farmers to dramatically change the way they grow food, and switch to more environmentally friendly practices that will conserve the land. A study conducted by Greenpeace International and Viswa Bharati University indicated that farmers would prefer to use organic fertilizers if they were easily available and affordable.

"We asked them, these 700 farmers, if they would use organic fertilizers if they were as economical as synthetic, and 82 or 83 percent said yes they would use organic fertilizers because they know they are better for the soil if they were as economical as chemical," said Reyes Tirado, an agriculture scientist and researcher for Greenpeace. "They want to take care of their soil, soil is the most valuable resource they have."

Other problems also plague the agricultural sector. Farmers say they get too low a price for their crops, making farming unprofitable. Some fear changes in temperature and rain patterns could also diminish agricultural output.

The looming agriculture crisis poses a huge challenge for a populous country. Last year, food prices rose by nearly 19 percent, and crops such as lentils and sugar had to be imported.

There is also widespread concern that the decline in India's farm sector is not getting sufficient attention .

But Swaminathan points out that policymakers cannot afford to ignore the agriculture sector in a predominantly rural country.

"There is the glamour of the growth rate, India shining. But the fact remains agriculture in India is not just a food-producing machine. It is the backbone of the livelihood security system of 700 million people, women and children and this has to be realized," Swaminathan said.

Swaminathan, along with many others, is urging the government to usher in a second green revolution that would be ecologically sustainable, and ensure sufficient food for a country whose population is projected to reach 1.5 billion by 2040.