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Carrying Capacity Of Indian Agriculture.

India, May 1 -- The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, New Delhi, conducted a brainstorming session in June 2011 on an important topic, "Carrying Capacity of Indian Agriculture". The purpose of this write up is to brief the salient points that came up during the brainstorming session as they are probably some of the most important matters in the lives of Indian people. This is the third write up on Carrying Capacity a topic which everyone should be aware of but hardly any papers or journals care to publish even small write up.

The first paragraph of the preface to the report formed the backdrop of the brainstorming session on the Carrying Capacity of Indian Agriculture. "Carrying Capacity (CC), a measure of maximum rate of resource consumption and waste discharge that can be sustained indefinitely in an area under consideration without impairing the productivity and ecological integrity, is a dynamic factor which can be altered by input of water, energy, plant nutrient, crop genotypes, use of advanced technologies, total factor productivity etc., a single vital resource limits CC. Currently India is said to be self-sufficient in food grains, except pulses and oilseeds. But, nearly one-fourth of our people are food-insecure. The Global Hunger Index places India low at rank 67 amongst 84 countries. Food security of the growing population that is likely to reach 1.44 billion in 2020 and 1.64 - 1.74 billion by 2050 is a cause of concern with steady decline in per capita arable land and water availability. Already feed and fodder resources are deficient for maintenance ration by 36.2% and by 56% for production ration for the livestock. Emergent issues of climate change, global warming, urbanization, shift in dietary preferences, soil erosion, depleting water resources, and rising cost of commercial energies aggravate the situation." The highlighted section already indicates that Indian agriculture is already beyond its CC.

What emerged from the brainstorming session was that agricultural productivity cannot increase without increasing use of water, energy, plant nutrients and agro-chemicals and enhancing their use efficiency. Prevention of post-harvest losses and strengthening of value addition along the producer-consumer chain were essential for increased food availability and improved quality of life. Estimates of the population level that can be adequately fed without hunger or hidden hunger in ecologically sustainable manner should help in designing robust science-based integrated farming systems. Paradigm shift is called for developing and deploying resource conservation technologies that improve input use efficiency and conserve and protect our natural resources. Awareness about CC amongst the scientists and people at large needs to be created.

According to the session, CC is not a static number as land productivity can be enhanced with inputs of water, energy, plant nutrients, crop genotypes and using advanced technologies/ products from these. This statement is true for a short term but in the long run CC is more static than dynamic. For example the yield can increase with the first few doses of plant nutrients; but the increase in yield decrease steadily till it becomes negative. The production curve goes through the stage of 1) increasing return, 2) static return and 3) decreasing return. With reference to the plant nutrients the carrying capacity is marked by the static return. The total carrying capacity of the crop land will be the combined effect of the all the carrying capacities of all the inputs like plant nutrients, technology, water, energy, crop genotypes etc. However the brain storming session struck the nail on the head when it asserted that 'the concept further implies that improvement in the quality of life is possible only when the patterns and levels of production and consumption do not have more than the acceptable adverse ecological impact.' At the same time the session acknowledged that any single factor can become a limiting factor to topple the carrying capacity: like water in rain fed agriculture. With this general introduction following could be stated as the Carrying Capacity status of Indian agriculture.

The Brainstorming Session (BSS) acknowledges that even with near self sufficiency cereals and millets the main energy food source of India for the present population of about 1250 million, a large section, particularly preschool children and women, suffer from protein calorie malnutrition and / or micronutrient deficiencies - the hidden hunger. The Global Hunger Index 2010 placed Indian at a low rank of 67 among the 84 countries, with 42% underweight children under five years. Hence it is an injustice to go on proclaiming that India is self sufficient in cereals and millets . From the point of population increase BSS noted that by the turn of century after Indian Independence the population would be increased by four times. At that time India with 2.4% of the world's surface area and about 4% of the world's fresh water supports 16.7% of the world's population. The present per capita availability of net cultivable land is less than 0.13 ha, and 1020 m3 of utilizable water. In 2050, 17.2% of the world's population would be living in India with such more reduced land, water and biodiversity resources.

According to 2007 census, the country has 486 million livestock, comprising of bovines, equines, sheep, goats, camels and pigs. The present feed and fodder resources are deficient for maintenance ration by 36.2%, and for production ration by 56%. Besides the above, environmental issues, climatic change including global warming, rapid urbanization, loss of top soil, competitive demands for fresh water and large increase in the cost of crude oil / energy are expected.

BSS acknowledged the Impact on the Environment Formula of P.R. Ehrlich and J.P.Holdren ( Science 171:1212-1217,1971). I = P x A x T, where: I = Impact on the environment, P = Population, A = Affluence of the population, T = Technology factor (the available technology). It is apparent that the population and its affluence are the key determinants, while technologies that improve the resource base can reduce the negative impact of P and A. Even though the agricultural research has no direct control over P and A, T can have both positive and negative effects. Technologies such as "no till" can reduce soil erosion or use of neem-based pesticide or insect-resistant cultivars can reduce the environmental pesticide load.

BSS cautions that climate change is going to have a bearing on the carrying capacity of Indian agriculture. It is likely to lead to more frequent temperature extremes, floods, droughts, cyclones and gradual recession of glaciers, which in turn would result in greater instability in food production. Crop as well as animal husbandry would be adversely affected; it is estimated that the reduction in crop production in India by 2100 AD could be up to 40% despite the beneficial effects of higher CO2 on crop growth. Dynamics of pests and diseases will be significantly altered. Country could lose 4-5 million tons of wheat with every rise of 1degC temperature. Heat, drought, salinity and submergence stresses would increase in the rice crop.

Land area is finite, and limited and Indian farmland, in general, is low in organic matter and due to the present cultivation practices the land degradation continues to be at the high rate. It is estimated that 39% of the area suffers soil loss more than the permissible limit and 11% of the area falls in very severe category where the soil loss is more than 40 tons/ha/year. This accompanied by the loss of prime crop land to industry, housing, transport, infrastructure, education, recreation and entertainment. A large part of the degraded lands are in rain-fed areas. Lands and water bodies are getting polluted due to excessive and improper use of agro-chemicals to an extent that the human health is affected. The per capita availability of land has fallen drastically from 0.91 ha in 1951 to about 0.32 ha in 2001, and it is projected to decline further to 0.09 ha by 2050.

Water will be a crucial issue as many river basins are likely to witness physical water scarcity by 2050. Energy shortage is increasing day by day. Current per capita consumption of electricity in India is 704 kWh in India, against 2,328 in China, 11,216 in Australia and 13,616 in USA and 16,995 in Canada.

Good quality seed of the identified improved varieties / hybrids is in short supply for most crops except pearl millet, pigeon pea and rapeseed/mustard. The productivity of rice the main crop of our country has reduced from 3.25 during 1980-90 to 1.54% during 1990-2000. Similar is the pattern of reduction in the productivity of other crops too. We have been always heavily deficient in oilseed and pulse production. In sugar production we are self sufficient at present but the trends are seen that we will be soon in deficient in sugar production too.

46.7 million hectares of land in India belong to the category of waste land. Every year all around 8000 towns and cities hundreds of hectares of prime agriculture lands are converted to nonagricultural purposes though in record most of it may be still farm lands. It is every one's visual experience that all the rivers in India are drying up and people are playing cricket and football in the riverbeds. India should have at least 220 million hectares (66.6%) under forest in order to maintain the ecological and hydrological balance but we hardly have 68 million hectares (20%) under forest. Under such forest degradation water problem is bound to happen and without water agriculture cannot be carried out. In the previous write up we have already seen that India has a carrying capacity of supporting 529 million only. But we are forced to support 1250 million. The rate of degeneration of soil and depletion of water in India is taking place at an accelerated rate and the carrying capacity of Indian agriculture (including animal husbandry) is decreasing year after year. A vast majority of the people in the urban areas and those involved in non-agriculture sector are not aware of it. Ecologically and agriculturally we are moving towards an irrecoverably explosive situation.

(The writer is Retired Professor, Environment & Natural Resource Management with Justice from XIM, Bhubaneswar. Email:

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Publication:Indian Currents
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2017
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