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Archive for August 2012

The 0.05 kilowatt farming human and other strange equations from India

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O mighty tractor, meet puny humans!

One of the Planning Commission of India’s working groups of agriculture concerns ‘crop husbandry, agricultural inputs, demand and supply projections and agricultural statistics for the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-17)’ which is a lot to expect out of a single committee, howsoever eminent the members and however luminous their output.

Perhaps that is why their observations especially where the use of (and supply of) energy for farming are so, shall we say, unconventional. The equation is that one (cultivating, farm labouring, roti-eating) human’s output is 0.05 kW, a draught animal (cow or bullock) is worth 0.38 kW, a power tiller delivers 5.6 kW and a tractor rules our districts with a lordly 26.1 kW. [You can get the extraordinary numbers here, in this excel file.]

In a short chapter on energy use in Indian farms, the committee has said: “While developed world mechanised its agriculture to create surplus labour for the industrial sector, in India it has been directed to help farmers and farm worker do their job speedily”. Curious. When I last looked in the districts, there were Escorts, Mahindra, TAFE, Sonalika, Swaraj, HMT, Indofarm and Force tractors. Foreign farm equipment manufacturers like John Deere and Kubota are already here, ready to assist the “farm worker do their job speedily”? Not likely, ready instead to follow the diktat of the central government to replace human labour, send human farm labour on its way to the towns and cities to become obedient consumers.

A bit more than 0.3 kW each, but no match for the diesel beast

But the committee has more to say: “With high quality job, [the farm worker will] acquire additional capacity to achieve timeliness in field operations without much hardship and drudgery.” That is indeed a considerateness I hardly expected to see in this day and age of austere governments and spartan budgets. Hardship and drudgery are constant companions of the cultivator in India – the smaller the cultivator, the more bosom these buddies.

And there is more: “It also helps in achieving precision in metering and placement of inputs for better crop stand, better response to inputs and increased productivity. Farm mechanization imparts dignity to farm work.” Leaves you speechless? It did me. (An electric motor is 3.7 kW and a diesel engine is 5.6 kW, for the complete table, the source of all this encouraging kilowattage is given as ‘Singh et al (2011), Agril. Enng. Today, Vol. 35(2)’.)

The committee has however taken a nostalgic look at the years when India resounded to the “jai jawan, jai kisan” slogan. Its report has reminisced: “Bullocks and other draft animals continue to have relevance in India for socio-economic reasons particularly to marginal and small farmers”. But right away comes the transnational multinational structurally adjusted hard-boiled World Bank-IMF-Prime Minister’s Office-Planned Decommissioning of India approach.

And there is this: “However, animate power per unit energy supply is costlier than electro-mechanical sources. Animals need to be fed and maintained even when not in use and are vulnerable to morbidity and mortality due to disease and pest, paucity of feeds and fodders, harshness of climate etc. With mechanisation, farm power availability has increased, yet a lot of efforts and investments are needed particularly in Eastern and North Eastern states, hill and mountain areas and tribal areas.”

And there we have it, bold and ugly – humans are not fit to cultivate. The age of the tractor has hit rural Bharat with as much force as BMW, Mercedes Benz and Audi have hit the semi-paved streets of Malltown India. Animals are troublesome beasts, humans are worth only 0.05 kw each and tractors are glorious. John Deere, are you here?

Written by makanaka

August 31, 2012 at 14:08

Of GM food crops, Bt cotton and an honest committee in India

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The Lok Sabha (the 15th Lok Sabha) of the Parliament of India has released the report of the Committee on Agriculture (2011-2012) on ‘Cultivation Of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects And Effects’. This report was presented to the Lok Sabha on 09 August, 2012.

Cover of the report. Click for the full report (pdf, 6.35 MB)

The report stands as a comprehensive indictment of the genetically modified food crops industry and its attempts to wrest control of India’s foodgrain and commercial crops production. The Committee sought views and suggestions on the subject from the various stakeholders and 467 memoranda, most of them signed by several stakeholders were received. In all, the Committee received documents running into 14,826 pages. The Committee also extensively interacted with various stakeholders including state governments, farmers organisations, NGOs, and also with farmers and their families during study visits during this period. Altogether, 50 individuals and organisations gave oral evidence before the Committee. Verbatim records of the proceedings of the oral evidence runs into 863 pages.

This small extract is from pages 24 to 29 of the 532-page Committee report:

GM crops are released in environment only after stringent evaluation of food/biosafety protocols/issues. To have a holistic and comprehensive view on the pros and cons of application of bio-technology on agricultural sector the Committee took on record IAASTD Report as it is an authentic research document prepared after painstaking effort of four years by 400 scientists from all over the world. India is a signatory to this Report which has been extensively quoted in a subsequent Chapter of the present Report of the Committee. Amongst various recommendations germane to all spheres of agriculture and allied activities and sectors, the following recommendations on bio-technology caught the attention of the Committee in all context of their present examination:

Conventional biotechnologies, such as breeding techniques, tissue culture, cultivation practices and fermentation are readily accepted and used. Between 1950 and 1980, prior to the development GMOs, modern varieties of wheat may have increased yields up to 33% even in the absence of fertilizer. Even modern biotechnologies used in containment have been widely adopted. For example, the industrial enzyme market reached US$1.5 billion in 2000. Biotechnologies in general have made profound contributions that continue to be relevant to both big and small farmers and are fundamental to capturing any advances derived from modern biotechnologies and related nanotechnologies. For example, plant breeding is fundamental to developing locally adapted plants whether or not they are GMOs. These biotechnologies continue to be widely practiced by farmers because they were developed at the local level of understanding and are supported by local research.

Much more controversial is the application of modern biotechnology outside containment, such as the use of GM crops. The controversy over modern biotechnology outside of containment includes technical, social, legal, cultural and economic arguments. The three most discussed issues on biotechnology in the IAASTD concerned:

o Lingering doubts about the adequacy of efficacy and safety testing, or regulatory frameworks for testing GMOs;
o Suitability of GMOs for addressing the needs of most farmers while not harming others, at least within some existing IPR and liability frameworks;
o Ability of modern biotechnology to make significant contributions to the resilience of small and subsistence agricultural systems.

The pool of evidence of the sustainability and productivity of GMOs in different settings is relatively anecdotal, and the findings from different contexts are variable, allowing proponents and critics to hold entrenched positions about their present and potential value. Some regions report increases in some crops and positive financial returns have been reported for GM cotton in studies including South Africa, Argentina, China, India and Mexico. In contrast, the US and Argentina may have slight yield declines in soybeans, and also for maize in the US. Studies on GMOs have also shown the potential for decreased insecticide use, while others show increasing herbicide use. It is unclear whether detected benefits will extend to most agroecosystems or be sustained in the long term as resistances develop to herbicides and insecticides.

Biotechnology in general, and modern biotechnology in particular, creates both costs and benefits, depending on how it is incorporated into societies and ecosystems and whether there is the will to fairly share benefits as well as costs. For example, the use of modern plant varieties has raised grain yields in most parts of the world, but sometimes at the expense of reducing biodiversity or access to traditional foods. Neither costs nor benefits are currently perceived to be equally shared, with the poor tending to receive more of the costs than the benefits.

The Committee note with great appreciation the fantastic achievements of India’s farmers and agriculture scientists leading to an almost five times growth in food grains production in the country during last six decades or so. From a paltry 50 million tonnes in 1950 the Country has produced a record 241 million tonnes in 2010-11. In spite of this spectacular achievement that has ensured the food security of the nation, things continue to be bleak on several fronts. Agriculture sector?s contribution to GDP has slid down from 50% in 1950 to a mere 13% now, though the sector continues to provide employment and subsistence to almost 70% of the workforce. The lot of the farmer has worsened with increasing indebtedness, high input costs, far less than remunerative prices for his produce, yield plateau, worsening soil health, continued neglect of the agriculture sector and the farmer by the Government, dependence on rain gods in 60% of cultivated area, even after six and a half decades of Country’s independence, to cite a few. All these factors and many more have aggravated the situation to such an extent that today a most severe agrarian crisis in the history is staring at us. The condition of the farming-Community in the absence of pro-farmer/pro-agriculture policies has become so pitiable that it now sounds unbelievable that the slogan Jai Jawan – Jai Kisan was coined in India.

There is, therefore, a pressing need for policies and strategies in agriculture and allied sectors which not only ensure food security of the nation, but are sustainable and have in built deliverable components for the growth and prosperity of the farming community. It is also imperative that while devising such policies and strategies the Government does not lose track of the fact that 70% of our farmers are small and marginal ones. As the second most populous Country in the world, with a growing economy ushering in its wake newer dietary habits and nutrition norms, a shrinking cultivable area, a predominantly rainfed agriculture, the task is indeed enormous.

In the considered opinion of the Committee biotechnology holds a lot of promise in fructification of the above-cited goals. Several of conventional bio-technologies viz. plant breeding techniques, tissue-culture, cultivation practices, fermentation, etc. have significantly contributed in making agriculture what it is today. The Committee note that for some years now transgenics or genetical engineering is being put forward as the appropriate technology for taking care of several ills besetting the agriculture sector and the farming community. It is also stated that this technology is environment friendly and, therefore, sustainable. Affordability is another parameter on which policy makers and farming communities world over are being convinced to go for this nascent technology.

The Committee further note that in India, transgenics in agriculture were introduced exactly a decade back with the commercial cultivation of Bt. Cotton which is a commercial crop. With the introduction of Bt. Cotton, farmers have taken to cotton cultivation in a big way. Accordingly, the area under cotton cultivation in the Country has gone up from 24000 ha in 2002 to 8.4 million ha at present. Apart from production, productivity has also increased with the cultivation of the transgenic cotton. The Committee also take note of the claim of the Government that input costs have also gone down due to cultivation of transgenic cotton as it requires less pesticides, etc.

Notwithstanding the claims of the Government, the policy makers and some other stakeholders about the various advantages of transgenics in agriculture sector, the Committee also take note of the various concerns voiced in the International Assessment of Agriculture, Science and Technology for Development Report commissioned by the United Nations about some of the shortcomings and negative aspects of use of transgenics/genetical engineering in the agriculture and allied sectors. The technical, social, legal, economic, cultural and performance related controversies surrounding transgenics in agriculture, as pointed out in IAASTD report, should not be completely overlooked, moreso, when India is a signatory to it.

The apprehensions expressed in the report about the sustainability and productivity of GMOs in different settings; the doubts about detected benefits of GMOs extending to most agro-eco systems or sustaining in long term; the conclusion that neither costs nor benefits are currently perceived to be equally shared, with the poor tending to receive more of the costs than benefits all point towards a need for a revisit to the decision of the Government to go for transgenics in agriculture sector. This is all the more necessary in the light of Prime Minister’s exhortion on 3 March, 2010 at the Indian Science Congress about full utilisation of modern biotechnology for ensuring food security but without compromising a bit on safety and regulatory aspects. The present examination of the Committee, as the succeeding chapters will bear out, is an objective assessment of the pros and cons of introduction of genetical modification/transgenics in our food crops which happened to be not only the mainstay of our agriculture sector but also the bedrock of our food security.

What ails the South Asian monsoon?

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Rainfall in India’s meteorological sub-divisions for the 2012 monsoon. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has finally admitted that this year will be a drought, as it has forecast rainfall for August and September as “below normal”. Map: IMD

This set of images helps explain the worrying 2012 monsoon season in South Asia and why drought conditions are emerging in more districts with every passing week.

We are coming up to the eight-week mark of the 2012 monsoon (taking the 04-06 June date as the ‘normal’ for the monsoon to become active over south-west India, after which the climatological system slowly advances over the peninsula and up into northern India).

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has not helped, by maintaining a scientific detachment between forecasting science and the dire situation of farmers and consumers. With emergency drought programmes new being rolled out in many states (more than a month late), the IMD’s refusal to speak plainly to those who need the information the most is unpardonable.

Worse, the Department on its website and its communications walls off its forecasting behind a very unfriendly science interface (see this commentary for a detailed explanation), and appears oblivious about its responsibilities to those for whom it exists – the citizens of India who are waiting for rain.

This set of images (strips below, you can click on the images for the full-size versions) describes what the IMD ought to be disseminating (but stubbornly refuses to). These are 24, 48, 72 and 96 hour regional forecasts for South Asia of accumulated precipitation and temperature extremes.

Day 1 – 02 Aug 2012

Day 2 – 03 Aug 2012

Day 3 – 04 Aug 2012

Day 4 – 05 Aug 2012

The four regions you see in the panels are Peninsular India and Sri Lanka, Western India and Pakistan, Northern & Central India and Nepal, and Eastern India and Bangladesh. These are from the monsoon forecasting sub-site of the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies – of the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) – which processes and synthesises data from the NOAA/NCEP, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, the US government agency), National Centers for Environmental Prediction. These regional weather forecasts are presented as a running four-day ensemble of images showing daily forecasts of 2-metre temperature minima and maxima and accumulated precipitation covering the four sub-regions.