R&D needed to meet India's food challenge

Sensemaking / R&D needed to meet India's food challenge

Investment in research and innovation is more effective than fertiliser subsidies, says Ashok Gulati, Chairman of India's Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices.

10 Apr 2013

Investment in research and innovation is more effective than fertiliser subsidies, says Ashok Gulati, Chairman of India's Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices

In India, the pursuit of food security isn't just a lofty political goal: it's a daily reality for hundreds of millions. And it's not getting any easier. Raj Ganguly, Agricultural Water Specialist at the International Finance Corporation, sums it up: "We need to produce more food, from less land, for more people."

Cracking that nut will need a whole range of different tools: some policy, some practical. As with other sectors, the present structure of subsidies comes in for a kicking. "Studies show that spending on R&D is nine times as effective as spending on fertiliser subsidies", says Ashok Gulati, Chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. "And yet, overall, 80% of public funding for agriculture comes in the form of subsidies, compared to just 20% in investment in new techniques, or in infrastructure like rural roads. So the 'subsidies to investment' ratio should be precisely reversed!"

On the practical side, sustainable intensification is on the radar, too. Working directly with farmers to improve food quality and yield is a priority, too [see box]. But there's no point growing crops if they're just left to rot. And this is just what happens to a surprisingly large chunk of the Indian harvest: some experts put the figure as high as 35-40%. The reasons? A significant one is the lack of refrigerated transport to stop the produce spoiling before it gets to market. If there were a thorough 'farm to fork' cold chain, the spoilage could be cut to just 5%. "The amount of food that gets wasted is truly shocking", says Venkatesh Valluri, Chairman of Ingersoll Rand (India).

Spotting the combination of a business opportunity with a clear social need, the company designed a compact low-energy refrigeration unit which can be powered directly from the engine of a small reefer truck suitable for narrow country roads, so covering the 'first and last mile' of food distribution. Unlike other refrigerated vehicles, the B100 unit works with the DC supply direct from the alternator, so doesn't need its own power source.

Sourcing the sauce

Tomato sauce is a ubiquitous feature of many Indian dining tables – but few people give much thought as to how the essential ingredient arrives in the bottle. Tomatoes are grown widely in the sub-continent, yet until recently Unilever (which makes the Kissan brand) imported much of its supply. Why? Because uncertainty over quality and availability, along with price volatility, made it impossible to rely on the local crop.

This state of affairs hardly fitted with the company’s Sustainable Living Plan, which aims to source 100% of all agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020. So Unilever embarked on a new partnership, working with a group of over 500 farmers in the Nasik area of Maharashtra. In return for a range of advice on improving quality and productivity, with tips on using drip irrigation and precise use of pesticides and fertilisers, the farmers undertake to follow sustainable practices, and – assuming the crop meets the right standard – are assured of a purchase deal from Unilever at a guaranteed price.

As part of the programme, which also draws on expertise from Bayer CropSciences, Indus and Syngenta, Unilever identified two seeds which give maximum ‘pulp per kilo’ when processed. Farmers are supplied with these seeds at subsidised cost. The programme is currently in its first year, but, assuming all goes well, says Singh, it should mean increased yields and profits for the farmers, and an assured supply of good-quality tomatoes for the company – all from a demonstrably sustainable source. (Providing, presumably, a demonstrably sustainable sauce.)

Martin Wright

Photo: Martin Wright

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