The agricultural sector carries immense importance for the Indian economy. It plays a significant role in the overall socio-economic fabric of India. It contributes about one-sixth of the national income and provides direct employment to nearly 50 per cent of the workforce. It has positioned itself as more relevant for meeting the food, feed, fodder, fuel, fibre and timber demands of an increasing human and animal population.

Agriculture, however, enjoys vitality for ensuring food security to all. In addition, it influences the growth of secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy through its forward and backward linkages. The World Development Report 2008 of the World Bank emphasised that growth in agriculture is, on average, at least twice as effective in reducing poverty than growth emanating outside agriculture.

Agricultural growth reduces poverty directly, by raising farm incomes, and indirectly, through generating employment and reducing food prices. While pre-independence periods were marked with severe famines and stresses, the hurtful memories of the mid-1960s still haunts many. India was hit by twin droughts in 1965 and 1966. Crop production crashed by onefifth. Due to lack of foreign exchange we could not approach the world market to buy foods.

Only unprecedented food aid from America, about 12,000 miles away, under PL-480 on rupee payment, saved India from mass starvation. During the second year of that critical period of drought, then US President Lyndon Johnson, because of the certain policies he had adopted, was releasing grain in driblets. At one point, we reached a stage where there were stocks for only two weeks and there was nothing in transit.

The situation of the country was labeled with such undignified remarks as ‘ship to mouth’. The crisis gave the country’s leadership an opportunity to resolve to become self-sufficient in food grains. The period also coincided with a breakthrough in technology for improvement of rice and wheat strains. India took advantage of these technologies, experimented with them under the leadership of Dr M S Swaminathan and launched large-scale agricultural extension services.

Through the use of Mexican wheat varieties, five dwarf varieties of wheat along with about 200 other breeding lines were introduced. The success in rice varietal development and other commodities like maize, jawar, bajra, small millet etc. caused a significant growth in the production of food grains. Within three years the production of wheat doubled. The Green Revolution transformed India to self-sufficiency.

One of the most notable achievements of Indian agriculture over last few decades has been the expansion of food grain output from nearly 51 million tonnes (MT) in 1950-51 to over 295 MT in 2019-20. Similarly, production of horticultural crops has surpassed 300 MT. The Green Revolution proved instrumental in providing the much-needed stimulus to agricultural production in the country to overcome food shortages by augmenting the yield to produce through the provision of HYV seeds, improved irrigation facilities and fertilizers.

But we can’t afford to believe we are far enough ahead in the race (production vs demand) to go to sleep like the hare which lost to a tortoise. The population of our country is expected to reach 1.531 billion by 2030-31. To feed this population and another 40 per cent additional for seed, feed, wastage and industrial uses put the projected food grain demand at 326 to 350 MT depending upon various estimates.

The demand for edible oils, milk and milk products, meat, egg and fish, vegetables, fruits and sugar has been projected at 24.31, 256.43, 29.45, 316.33, 178.74 and 44.77 MT, respectively in 2030-31 (NITI Aayog, 2018). We have made progress in agriculture, but productivity of major agricultural and horticultural crops is very low in comparison to other countries. After years of Green Revolution and decline in agricultural products, it is obvious that the necessity of employing new and more advanced technologies is more than ever.

Our country is still technology deficit. Farmers still operate with traditional implements. Yields per hectare of food grain, fruits and vegetables in our country are far below global averages. Our rice yield is one-third of China’s, and about half of Vietnam’s and Indonesia’s. Similarly, the productivity of pulses and oilseeds can be increased 2.3 to 2.5 times, with attention to seeds, soil health, pest management, crop life savings, irrigation and post-harvest technology.

But the future demands must be achieved with declining per capita availability of land, water and other finite natural resources. There is also a growing realization that previous strategies of generating and promoting technologies have contributed to serious and widespread problems of environmental and agrarian distress. Productivity gains during the ‘Green Revolution’ era were largely confined to relatively well endowed areas.

Given the wide range of agroecological setting and producers, Indian agriculture is faced with a great diversity of needs, opportunities and prospects. Growth needs to be more rapid, more widely distributed and better targeted. These challenges call for more efficient and sustainable use of increasingly scarce water and germplasm resources. One of the most important technologies is biotechnology which can lead to transgenic plants: that is plants which are ‘human-made’ and are tailored to meet the desired objective by transfer and expression of the desired type of gene to a target plant.

Transgenic crops can offer valuable benefits ~ increased yields, improved flavor or nutritional quality of foods and reduced use of pesticides. The raging debate over GM crops points to poorly planned use of technology rather than failure of technology. However, as Borlaug had said in 2004 ~ ‘If the naysayers manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they will precipitate the famines’.

Presently, approximately 17 million farmers grow GMO crops around the world; most of them are in developing countries. In total, more than 60 countries import or grow GMO, and in 2017, 24 countries (five industrial and 19 developing) planted biotech crops. As of 2017, the top five countries growing GMO in terms of crop areas are the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India. In India, Bt cotton is the only GM crop allowed for commercial cultivation. Virtually all cotton grown in the country is genetically modified.

But India has not yet grown GMO for food. Brinjal is the second most consumed vegetable, after potato, in India. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) of the Government of India cleared Bt brinjal for commercialization in 2009. But following concerns raised by some scientists and anti-GMO lobbies the Ministry of Environment announced an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal in India.

Healthy soil is a key natural resource and crucial for agriculture as it acts as a dynamic living system delivering multiple services. India faces an acute problem of soil erosion. A national database on land degradation prepared the Indian Space Research Organization in 2016 showed that around 120.7 million hectare (mha) or 36.7 per cent of India’s total arable and nonarable land suffers from various forms of degradation with water erosion being its chief contributor in 83 mha (68.4 per cent).

An array of resource conservation technologies including zero and reduced tillage, green manuring, crop rotations etc. are available. Zero tillage is used for minimum soil disturbance. This technology allows direct planting without ploughing or soil preparation. Seeding is done directly through surface residues of previous crops using seed drill which helps reduce seed rate and ensure uniform plant stands. Zero tillage reduces the cost of tillage and gives similar or higher yields.

Use of hydrogel (a water absorbing material) in dry land or limited water conditions can improve water use efficiency. Irrigation practices like drip or sprinkler method also show high water use efficiency and save water. For improving nutrient use efficiency, site specific nutrient management can be followed. Right source, right time, right dose and right place (4R) approach of fertilizer application can improve nutrient use efficiency.

In India, agriculture is mostly in rainfed areas therefore climate resilient technologies are the need of the hour to enable the farmers to cope with the climate variability. Smart agriculture or/and precision agriculture is a new attitude in farm management. It involves the integration of advanced technologies into farming practices. It consists of applying inputs (what is needed) when and where they are needed and has become the third wave of modern agriculture (the first was mechanization and the second the green revolution with its genetic modification).

Recently, there have been enormous innovations of agricultural production, not only improving productivity, but just as importantly, safeguarding the environment. Seed sowing at the right place and right amount is very tedious. Effective seeding requires control over two variables: planting seed at the correct depth and appropriate spacing between plants for optimal growth. Precision seeders are available. In future, the existing precision seeders will come together with autonomous tractors and ICT–enabled systems that feed information back to farmers.

Feeding crops with nutrients as and when needed to make synergy between nutrient demand and supply under different field crops production system is the solution to manage special variability of nutrients. Nanotechnology as a new powerful technique can create massive changes in the food and agricultural system. This technology is defined as relating to materials, systems and processes which operate at a scale of 100 nm (one nanometer is equal to one-billionth of a meter) or less.

It helps agriculture in many ways. It helps to reduce environmental pollution, to increase agricultural production and its applications include: (1) nanoformulations of agrochemicals for applying pesticides and fertilizers for crop improvement; (2) plant disease diagnosis; (3) postharvest management etc. Moreover, nanosensors and nano-based smart delivery systems could help in efficient use of agricultural natural resources like water, nutrients and chemicals through precision farming.

There is a wide gap between the technologies developed in the research institutions and their applicability at the farmers’ field. Awareness among farmers as to technologies must be created for better transfer of research technologies.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)