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Lux Lakshmanan: Pulse of the nation

Lux Lakshmanan 

The critical state of India’s food security is only getting worse each year. Besides, the cost of food items is rapidly increasing beyond affordability to a majority of people. Added to these woes are the short supply of pulses and edible oils that the central government is forced to import.

Pulses play a critical role in the Indian diet because large sections of people are vegetarians. Proteins play a key role in the human diet in that it is the body building nutrient that develops muscles and is responsible for body strength, endurance and productivity at the workplace.

It is established that a human body requires a daily intake of about 50 grams of protein. Whereas people in developed countries and most developing countries have a satisfactory protein intake, India’s per capita daily intake is only about 10 grams, endangering the health and work performance of people.

Proteins are amino acids and out of the 22 amino acids required in the human diet, the body supplies 14 of these. The remaining eight have to come from the food we eat. If all the eight amino acids are present in a single food item, it is called a complete protein food.

Whereas all proteins from animal source are complete proteins, it is easy to satisfy the dietary protein requirement of non-vegetarians. However, the main sources of protein for vegetarians are leguminous plants to which pulses belong. In general, pulses have lower concentrations of protein than animal sources. Besides, none of the pulses are complete proteins, except soybeans. Therefore, combinations of two or more pulses are needed in a vegetarian diet. Dairy products that are complete proteins may also be used to supplement the pulse proteins in vegetarian diets.

Having emphasised the important role that pulses play in the human diet, it is now our responsibility to increase its availability indigenously. The commonly held belief that without new high-yielding varieties, the country will have to continue import of pulses and edible oils to meet its requirements is not true.

The possibility of improving productivity per acre two to three times using existing varieties is demonstrated time and again in grower fields in India. However, it is not done through just following present crop production practices but through the adoption of entirely new but simple and farmer-friendly technologies and tools presently not available to Indian farmers.

The underlying problem of Indian agriculture that threatens the food security of the country is the extremely low productivity of crops per acre. For example, rice productivity is only a third achieved elsewhere. Cotton productivity is only a sixth of yields in developed countries. The cases of all other crops are no different. In order for us to progress, our mindset on the following two factors needs to be changed:

  • It is not the farmer who makes the food. He is only a facilitator. Food is actually made by plants. Therefore, it is important to understand the requirements of plants and supply them without restrictions in order for plants to deliver food. Since plants do not talk, their needs are understood through research and experimentation.

    The current policy of pampering farmers with subsidies will get us nowhere when it comes to achieving crop productivity improvements. This is well understood not only in developed countries, but also in developing African countries like Malawi, where from a basket case of poverty, malnutrition and food shortage, crop productivity improvements are made to the point where the country now exports surplus food to neighbouring poor countries.

    The lesson we will have to learn is that instead of subsidising food for people, plants need subsidised food such as fertilisers and other inputs in order for them to produce the food for us to achieve food security. 

  • The mindset that breeding is the solution to all our maladies has to change. Nurturing plants is several times more important in crop productivity improvement than hybrid seeds per se. A hybrid variety will not produce if planted in a non-fertile beach soil. But will produce several times more if planted in fertile soil.

Brazil has learnt this lesson several years ago and completely stopped financing breeding for new varieties. Instead, it scouts around the world and selects promising varieties for testing their adaptability under Brazilian climatic conditions and then provides funding just for that. They have taken stem cuttings of black pepper varieties from Kerala in India and spent money and effort on crop production practices. Now their pepper yield is 1,500 kg per acre compared to India’s average of a mere 350 kg an acre, the lowest among pepper producing countries.

India has about 50 million acres of irrigated land and is second only to the US with 60 million acres. In the US, it is possible to take only one crop per year due to weather constraints. However, India has the potential to take three crops per year, provided we learn how to sustain the fertility of our soils. This will be equal to 150 million acres of irrigated land. At present, our system of monitoring soil fertility and maintaining it is flawed and needs urgent attention.

The author is Director, California Agriculture Consulting Service, USA.

First Published: Sat, April 30 2011. 00:12 IST