In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, India had a record-breaking harvest in wheat, rice, and pulses, more than 305 million tonnes, according to the third advance estimates for the 2020-21 crop year. In another record, in Punjab alone, the state has procured around 130 lakh tonnes of wheat, the highest in a decade, and the state has, using direct benefit transfer (DBT), which means a straight transfer of money to the bank account without any layers in between, transferred most of the money for the rabi season directly to farmers.
There is more to this story.
Between 2018-19, jackfruit exports from Kerala grew to 500 tonnes. This year 1.2 tonnes of jackfruit was exported even from Tripura to London. India has also started exporting organic agricultural products to Germany.
As many of us have been writing for a while now, in a post-pandemic world, demand for good quality, especially organic, agrarian produce would grow exponentially. This is now starting to happen; even as Indian agriculture starts to get innovative. For instance, a startup has started exporting patented fortified rice from Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu to Ghana and Yemen.
All this at a time when the world faces a major food crisis, says the U.N. The world’s food systems and supply chains are at a greater risk than ever in recent times. Questions on how to feed a population likely to grow to 8 billion or even 9 billion around the world looms heavily upon policymakers.
Thread all this together and a story starts to emerge. Two major things will happen in the years to come: Artificial intelligence (A.I.) will utterly transform our everyday lives (year after year China files more A.I. patents than any other country including the U.S., but that is another story), and food will become one of the most critical aspects of global demand and diplomacy. Clean, organic food, especially pulses, fruits and vegetables for a world showing rocketing demand for vegan fare, and alternatives to meat, would be in great demand.
Where would this come from?
One of the most plausible sources must be India where estimates vary between a half to two-thirds of the population engaged in agrarian work of some kind; it has the second largest land area, after the U.S., and the largest gross irrigated crop area. Because its productivity still has a large scope to improve, India has the potential to crop a lot of food than most parts of the world. China for instance already grows food at high levels of productivity and it is running out of farmland, and nearly a fifth of its agrarian land suffers from overuse of chemicals. From Ukraine to Mozambique, the Chinese are rushing to lease land to ensure future food security.
In India, the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) has announced this month that the exports of organic products have risen by more than 80 times from 2002-03 hitting $1.4 billion in the last financial year. The biggest buyers are the U.S. and the European Union.
With steadfast roll-out of reforms in the agriculture and use of digital technology to ease transactions and payments, Indian agriculture is tackling some of its most protracted problems. A surfeit of startups is opening across the country working on the one thing everyone always said must be done—more processing and better packaging of agrarian produce so that it is not just sold raw, but at a higher price, properly processed. Whether it is cheese from the Himalayas, or coffee from the Araku valley, or chocolate from Wayanad sold in Paris, agrarian produce is changing consumer tastes around the country, and selling across the globe.
If the above aspect is paid more attention, along with adequate solutions to clean soil where overuse of pesticide has happened, and water tables replenished, it can be a great source of economic and strategic strength for the country in the future. India is slowly learning to see its agriculture not as a drag on public finances but as a source of great innovation, value addition, and even strategic use.
This is the time for more and more Indians who have an opportunity to consider new ventures in agriculture—both food and non-food. This kind of effort will ensure that not only do all of us get to enjoy the benefits of a climate and agrarian culture which is one of the richest in the world, but which could also be the world’s food basket in the future.
Views are personal. The author is a historian and a columnist. He is a multiple award-winning author of nine books.