Every year after Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) when I visit India, my home country, the first drastic change I notice is the food inflation rate. In New Delhi if you send an SMS to a restaurant for home delivery service, you may get your order in less than 20 minutes, which goes to show that there are plenty of food options available. At the same time, however, you will notice the numerous beggars on the streets. There is thus something visibly wrong that led me to ask myself whether it is possible for us to directly connect the agriculture field to people in need?
There is a fundamental rule in business management: If you want your business to profit then you should do something essential for all human beings. Yet why is it that the IT sector is so thriving while food farming, an elemental need in life, is not profitable and that in last 15 years over 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in India?
Agriculture scientists worldwide emphasize the fact that at the current growth rate, the world population may reach 9 billion by 2050 and that to meet the increase in demand we must elevate production levels. However, current statistics show that while today’s world population amounts to 6.7 billion, we produce enough food for 11.5 billion people, almost double than required. The main reasons for such a lurid problem has to do with problematic trade and economic policies. As a result, farmers are committing suicide, much of the public is suffering from food inflation rates and the majority of profits are taken by middle-men. What we need then is just a proper food chain supply and that constitutes a huge business opportunity for Israeli agritech companies.
To overcome these problems the Indian government is planning to bring a food security bill for poor people, as well as FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) to improve the food chain supply for the common man before next year’s election. There are big debates taking place about the implementation of such a critical bill in this time frame.
Although a national food security bill provides food to poor people on subsidized rates after having bumper crops yields, no one knows what economic, political and social impact it will have. For example, instead of bringing down food prices, this seems to have had the opposite effect. The bill has been criticized for low food entitlements and inadequate attention to nutrition. Moreover, if a small farmer could get food grain for as little as Rs.1 per kg, as proposed in the Food Security Bill, what incentive would s/he have to grow her/his own? And what would happen in a bad crop year or successive bad years? Currently, production and availability of food grain for implementing the Food Security Bill does not appear to be an issue since on average one third of the food grain production every year is wasted due to lack of proper storage facility. We have had bumper crops every year — 259.32 million tons in 2012-13 — and have enormous buffer stocks. Ever since Brazil launched the Zero Hunger Programme in 2001, it has pulled out 30-40 million people from poverty. Brazil promises to eradicate hunger by 2015 whereas in the Indian National Food Security Bill there is no such specific goal being doled out. To me, it seems that while Brazil's Zero Hunger was time-bound and aimed at making hunger history, India's Food Security Bill is simply targeted at the 2014 elections.
At the same time FDI is going to open doors for US firms like Wal-Mart and Tesco. The government justification is that this will improve food chain supply, provide warehouse and especially cold storage facilities, thus having control over food inflation rates and giving the public the choice to buy from cheaper outlets. But at the same time, an influx of foreign actors would have a strong impact on unemployed people who work in small businesses for their daily survival and have no job security. Farmers, in addition, would not have the right to demand minimum support price (MSP) since these companies may buy goods from other countries and then sell them in India. Even though the government claims that it has placed safety nets in place, e.g. outlets would be open only in those cities where the population is over 1 million (currently 53 cities) and foreign firms would have to buy at least 30% of their products from the Indian market, these rules have yet to be accepted by the foreign companies with which the government is in negotiation.
In such circumstances start-up countries like Israel have much to offer India. To quote former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, “In an age where community involvement and partnership with civil society are increasingly being recognized as indispensable, there is clearly a growing potential for cooperative development and renewal worldwide”. India should thus consider adopting Kibbutz-like agriculture practice to minimize transportation and storage problem, which will then lead to further price control by removing the involevement of middlemen.
Land is a productive asset, but for many farmers who lack scientific agricultural practice, it is in the hands of unproductive people. Moreover, water and agriculture are inextricable. Thus , it is important to know how to exploit water for irrigation with minimal effort. Presently in India most farmers use underground water for irrigation and depend on diesel or electricity to pump it, which brings financial burden to poor farmers. In this context, there are many agricultural tools and methods that Israel can share with India, whilst at the same time getting access to Indian biodiversity – 45,000 plant species which can bring even further improved plant varieties through molecular breeding practices.
With the changing global climate, post-harvest damage has become very challenging throughout the world. During the rainy season (Monsoon) in India the price of vegetables like tomatoes and onions is very high. Bringing in options such as processed tomato purees and onion paste could present solutions in such cases. Here we should not forget that Israel exports vegetable products to the whole of Europe with minimal post harvest damage.
Several other small innovative applications like grain cocoon, biological pest control, and protected cultivation under greenhouses could also be very useful to solve India’s food security problem. Furthermore, dairy and fish farms, which stem off the agricultural branch may also benefit from Israel’s significant technological expertise.
Dr. Akhilesh Kumar is a Postdoctorate Fellow at The Volcani Center (Ministry of Agriculture and Research Organization) and a Fellow of the Israel Asia Center