India’s 2016 Budget: Good for Farmers?

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India’s budget for the new financial year was announced yesterday. Earlier, the prime minister had described it as “pro-village, pro-farmer and pro-poor”. The announced objective of doubling farm income in five years is difficult to evaluate at this point but the additional support for the MNREGA scheme is expected to provide a boost to rural incomes.

The Economic Survey, identifying the roots of economic distress in the farm sector, noted: “The declining growth in agriculture owing to two consecutive drought years, and with decline in production and area sown of major crops, agriculture sector needs a transformation to ensure sustainable livelihoods for the farmers and food security for the population. The transformation in agriculture has to be steered by raising productivity in agriculture, by investing in efficient irrigation technologies, and efficient use of all inputs.”

The increasing scarcity of water, further exacerbated by climate change underscores the need for expansion of irrigation facilities and the allocation for this purpose may not be enough. Budgets in the past have also had the goal of improving irrigation but little progress has been made so more effort here would have been welcome.

While investment in irrigation is essential, the Survey also identified other stressors that need to be attended to: “agriculture requires a new paradigm with the following components: increasing productivity by getting “more from less” especially in relation to water via micro irrigation; prioritizing the cultivation of less water-intensive crops, especially pulses and oil-seeds, supported by a favorable Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime that incorporates the full social benefits of producing such crops .” Long term sustainable growth in agriculture needs more investment in research and extension so that new varieties that can withstand the changing growing conditions due to climate disruption are developed and farmers are informed about how to use these and other inputs effectively. How the government plans to achieve this is not clear.

The push for rural electrification and roads and the soil health card initiative are welcome steps forward. The push to bring more land under organic farming is a little confusing; for the vast number of rural poor struggling to eke out a living on poor quality soil without access to improved seeds or effective fertilizers, they are by default organic farmers. It is crucial that Indian agriculture avoid getting mired in the labeling game and focus on blending good farm practices that have been developed by our farmers over centuries and advances in agricultural biotechnology which have the potential to support drought and saline resistance, bring greater yields through pest resistance and via biofortification enable us to tackle widespread malnutriton and stunting.

On the whole though, the focus on agriculture is positive measure which will benefit the Indian economy as a whole. To sum up , from the Economic Survey again: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many indeed do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – the mother of all sciences; it remains the science which makes human life possible; and it may be that, before the century is over, the success or failure of science as a whole will be judged by the success or failure of agriculture.” –T.W. Schultz

With cautious optimism, it can be said this budget takes tentative initiatives in that direction of sustained progress.

(Image Courtesy: “Jodhpur, India, January 1, Unidentified Man Selling..” by Sira Anamwong, freedigitalphotos.net)

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#Farming Friday 46: European Farmer Reflects on GMOs

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In which a farmer from the Netherlands comes to Iowa, meets farmers from all over the world: from large farms and small, some prosperous, some struggling; and discovers that there is more to the GMO narrative than the usual noise that fills the media and a new discourse is needed in Europe.

This is the first time I have been able to feature the views of a farmer from Europe in this series. I am particularly delighted about this because one of the most common comments thrown out in social media discussion is “Look at Europe”. Here we get to read the story of insights that emerge when Europe looks at the world. This is how the food system discussion should be, reflecting all or as many voices as possible, starting with those who grow the food.

 

(Image Courtesy: “Old Windmill in Keukenhof, Lisse” by Sira Anamwong, freedigitalphotos.net)

What Is Important In Iowa? Food!

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With so much political noise coming from Iowa in the last few days, one curious bit of news went almost unnoticed: a Chinese citizen pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing corn seeds on behalf of a biotech company in Beijing. Why would corn seeds be of such interest to China?  The answer came from an article shared on Twitter.  This piece on the battle between China and the US to control the global food supply was a revelation.

It provides details of how the theft was uncovered and the offenders caught and also reveals what motivated this act :” Despite its remarkable landmass, China simply can’t grow enough food to feed itself, particularly now that the country’s burgeoning middle class has acquired an appetite for meat. (Most corn in China is used as feed for livestock.) Water shortages and lack of arable terrain have forced their government to buy between two and five million metric tons of American corn annually, approximately 94 percent of all corn imported into China each year.”  In its efforts to throw off their dependence on US food production, China is pursuing a plan to grow more at home, and a crucial tool in this effort is high yielding seeds, hence the interest in insect resistant bt corn.

Further, while the theft was set up by a Chinese company, it seems to have the tacit approval of the Chinese government. The matter was treated by the FBI as one of national security: “The federal government, thereby, has implicitly acknowledged that it considers agricultural products both an asset and a weapon in a long-range geopolitical chess match with China, a resource of near-military value and importance, one that must be protected by all available means. By that logic, those Chinese nationals stealing corn are spies, no different—and, indeed, perhaps more important—than those who swipe plans for a new weapons system.”

The place of corn as a weapon in international political strategy is not new, as we learn from the narrative; the development of hybrid seeds to maximize output was part of the strategy to outperform the collective farms of Russia and China. In a time of growing population and climate uncertainty impacting food production, the use of agricultural biotechnology to ensure food security remains crucial.

If international policy matters seem somewhat removed from our daily reality, there is another aspect which is easier to recognize: who is working in the fields to grow all this corn (among other crops)? It is usually an immigrant farm worker, perhaps living here without legal papers, filling in the vacuum of labor created by an ageing farming population and urban migration of young people. They are a crucial part of food production but how does the system treat them? Can we demand a just food system yet ignore farm workers? For while the candidates may talk about sending people back and local residents might resent the influence of a very different culture in their midst; they are both constrained by the need for labor to grow the crops which fill plates at home and in the world.

Food is not just about what we eat, it shapes the world in ways that might not always be evident. There are often no simple and easy solutions. All the more reason why we need to debate the issues with patience and honesty.

(Image Courtesy: “Fresh Corn Cobs” by foto76 at freedigitalphotos.net)

Snow Day On A Dairy Farm

#Farming Friday 45: A peek into what a snowy day means for a farmer.

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While everyone else is rejoicing the snow day that’s happening here, for us it simply means that life will be more difficult. Every day is work on a dairy farm, but when snow arrives with cold temperatures it can make even the easiest chore hard.The local television news crews may remind viewers to care for their dogs and cats, but a few hundred hungry bovines is a different challenge altogether.

Food and water are not necessities reserved for people. Our young calves stay inside barns and providing extra hay and water for them isn’t too tough. The older heifers that are in the elements require more. They need more to eat because that will provide them with the calories they need to stay warm.

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Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.

-The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, -Coleridge

Snow, sleet…

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Growing Food In A Dryer, Hotter Future

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Yesterday I got a pleasant surprise when WordPress notified me that I had 500 posts. It seems like a long time ago that I started this blog, a journey prompted by the food safety scares of 2008: e coli in lettuce and tomatoes.  And while some of today’s stories are similar, I do see many hopeful notes of progress. One area in which encouraging news is growing is the issue of food production in a time of climate disruption. How will we grow rice in drought like conditions? The solution could be “Sahbhagi Dhan”.  Research is ongoing on how plants “remember drought”, or how they are equipped to deal with total water deprivation: efforts that could create varieties of alfalfa, sorghum, corn and soy beans that will flourish and nurture us in a very different environment.

And sometimes the research yields not only good results for nutrition but is also a treat for the eyes, like this lavender lime, full of beneficial bioflavonoids , that will add a lovely burst of color to our plates!

(Image Courtesy: “Agriculture Rice Green Field and Blue Sky Background” by blackzheep, freedigitalphotos.net)

Wordless Wednesday: A Winter Sunset on the Farm

Beautiful view from the farm!

Rural Route Ramblings

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Year End Food Reads and Possibilities for 2016

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On the last day of the year, some insights on the year in agriculture in the US, research on farming and rural communitiesand a look at the growing place of agricultural biotechnology in the food system.

As a planet, we all had a moment of hope as the Paris climate talks seemed to bring some possibility of action in the right direction but climate disruption is already impacting food production and food security in many communities. A plan to combat climate change must include a plan for food production and the understanding that conservation and agriculture are not separate and opposing goals. Rather, initiatives that focus on both are optimal.

While it is encouraging to see the efforts to reduce food waste on the consumption side, much remains to be done on reducing postharvest losses which are particularly significant in developing economies: great reads on that here.

My wish for 2016: less shouting from entrenched positions and more efforts at working together to nurture a food system that can combat hunger, malnutrition and climate change. Inspired by a farmer’s call for unity.

Thank you for stopping by to read this year! See you in 2016!

(Image Courtesy: Serge Bertasius Photography, freedigitalphotos.net)