The demand for wheat in 2020 is projected at 92 million tonnes. Current output already exceeds that level. However, there is no guarantee that such a comfortable demand-supply equation will endure in the long run. Unless technology manages to outwit growth retarders, it may be hard to sustain the self-sufficiency of this key staple cereal.
Some interesting facts have been highlighted in a comprehensive study of wheat output trends, and the likely future scenario by the Karnal-based Directorate of Wheat Research (DWR). On the positive side, the total wheat output has continued to outpace demand till now despite a slowdown in the growth in its productivity. The 92 million-tonne level, envisaged by the Planning Commission as the demand in 2020*, was actually surpassed in 2011-12 when wheat harvest touched 94.88 million tonnes. Though the output slumped marginally in 2012-13 to 93.5 million tonnes, it was still higher than the long-term target. This year's crop, being harvested now, is estimated at a record 95.6 million tonnes.
On the downside, the waning growth rates of production and productivity of wheat since the 1970s have raised questions on whether this good run can be sustained. The compounded annual growth in wheat production has dropped from 4.31 per cent in the 1970s to 3.58 per cent in the 1980s and 3.57 per cent in 1990s to just 1.90 per cent in the 2000s. The speed of increase in per-hectare yields has dwindled from 1.87 per cent in the 1970s to 0.69 per cent in the 2000s, with the exception of the 1980s when this number stood at a robust 3.1 per cent. This slowdown is mainly believed to be a result of deceleration in the expansion of cropped acreage and irrigated area under this crop.
Climate change is one of the biggest threats to Indian agriculture, particularly wheat, according to DWR Director Indu Sharma and principal scientist Ravish Chatrath. Global climate studies have predicted that wheat output will plunge four to six per cent a year with every one degree Celsius increase in temperature. Worse, the temperature rise is anticipated to be relatively high in the rabi season when wheat is grown. Besides, the likely erratic, even if increased, rainfall is expected to increase the number of cloudy days, thus hitting wheat yields.
Pests and diseases constitute another formidable menace because they have begun to acquire resilience to available control agents. Moreover, new pests and pathogens are emerging. Luckily, the situation is not yet unmanageable. Besides, the unabated degradation of natural resources such as land and water is making it harder to enhance wheat yield. Increased use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation are impairing soil health, lowering the water table and degrading the quality of water.
The DWR study also counts the emerging tight intellectual property rights (IPR) regime among the challenges facing wheat. This will prevent free sharing of genetic material for research - a facility that had helped breed situation-specific wheat varieties to bring about the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. The entire research output of the private sector is patent-protected. In the public sector, too, IPR awareness is growing across the globe.
Keeping these challenges in view, the DWR has pitched the wheat production target for 2020 at an achievable 100 million tonnes. It has also conceived research strategies to overcome foreseeable obstacles in augmenting wheat yields. A judicious combination of conventional breeding and modern biotechnological tools can help evolve wheat strains capable of withstanding stresses caused by diseases, pests, climate change and deterioration of natural resources. Developing hybrid wheat and improving the photosynthetic capacity of the wheat plant are among other possible means of achieving a breakthrough in productivity. However, some changes in agronomic practices, such as the judicious use of chemicals, restoration of soil health by using adequate quantities of organic matter and efficient water use, are imperative if the future of wheat in India is to be secure.
*Vision 2020 report on Food Security and Nutrition by R Radhakrishnan and K Venketa Reddy