Reorienting India’s food basket: Act on pulses now

Covid-19 is a time to think of increase acreage for pulses. This will help bring greater balance, especially considering the changing food basket of the country

Reorienting India’s food basket: Act on pulses now
By 2030, when our population crosses 150 crore, the estimated demand for pulses will be 33 mt.

By Ram Kaundinya

Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the need to reorient our food basket. Plant-based nutrition will be seen as a more sustainable system of production and consumption from the environment and nutrition viewpoint. This fits well with SDG-12 (responsible consumption and production).

Pulses are a great source of protein for Indians, especially vegetarians. They are an essential part of our food, and their importance has to increase now. We need to pay more attention to pulses cultivation and consumption.

Red gram and Bengal gram (chana) account for most of India’s pulse production, followed by black gram and green gram. They are grown in rice fallow cultivation (coastal regions) of Andhra and Orissa. Red gram (kharif crop) is grown mainly in the Deccan plateau, while Bengal gram (rabi crop) is grown in different parts. Increasing population, improved incomes and enhanced awareness about nutrition has boosted demand for pulses in the last two decades.

In 2000, about 14 million tons (mt) of pulses accounted for 22 million ha (mha) of land. In 2010, the acreage increased to 26 mha with an annual production of 16 mt and annual import of 4 mt. By 2015, the demand inched up to 22 mt, and the imports rose to 5 mt. The retail price of tur dal touched Rs 180/kg. To ease the situation, the government increased the acreage to 30 mha, and imports increased from 5 mt in 2015 to 6.3 mt in 2016. Though this brought the prices under control, a steep fall in the market prices was observed, and the farmers, who had switched to growing pulses, lost heavily in the process. The Food Corporation entered the market in a big way to procure pulses. Both the farmers and the government lost money. However, the consumer benefitted due to reduced prices.

This year the imports are expected to be below 1 mt. Currently, the retail price of tur dal is hovering around Rs 100/kg.

Balancing farmers’ welfare and consumers’ welfare is a tough ask. The MSP for pulses has increased every year. Similarly, tur dal support price increased from Rs 46.25/kg in 2015 to Rs 58/kg this year; support price for black gram, Bengal gram and green gram, went up from Rs 46.25/kg to Rs 57/kg, Rs 35/kg to Rs 48.75/kg and Rs 48.50/kg to Rs 70/kg, respectively.

Although these support prices provided relief for the farmers, on many occasions, the market price was less than the support price, especially when large-scale imports took place, and when the government did not procure enough quantities at the support price.

By 2030, when our population crosses 150 crore, the estimated demand for pulses will be 33 mt. If we have to meet the requirements and avoid imports, our current yields of 835kg/ha have to go up by at least 30% in this decade.

Efforts to develop higher-yielding varieties are going on, especially at the Directorate of Pulses Research, based at Kanpur, and ICRISAT, Hyderabad.

Further, data published by the Directorate of Pulses shows that the actual yields in the farmers’ fields are less than the yields in the demonstration plots of research institutions by about 47% in red gram, 52% in Bengal gram, 53% in black gram and 26% in green gram. This may be attributed to weather-related issues, pests and diseases and improper application of fertilisers.

There is a need to take up projects that increase yields, protein content and make our red gram varieties more tolerant to the dreaded pod borer, which causes 50% yield losses, drought situations, and to several fungal and bacterial diseases. Since these are mostly rainfed crops, there is an acute need to develop varieties which mature faster. We must invest in using modern science and technology to develop hybrids in red gram.

Farmers use heavy doses of pesticides to control the pod borer in red gram and the diseases in black gram and green gram. Researchers have been trying to develop varieties that are tolerant to borer but have not been very successful. There is a strong case to use Bt technology, used in cotton to control the same insect. This can dramatically reduce the use of pesticides and increase yields in red gram and Bengal gram. Development of these two crops with Bt has been going on, but needs regulatory progress.

Micro-irrigation tool like Hose Reel technology-based irrigation system could be perfectly suited for these crops.

To fight yield-reducing water stress, we should not hesitate to use modern technology like the GM trait Water Use Efficiency, which will act as an insurance policy for the farmers against drought. Similarly, we should use modern genomics and dig deeper into their genome to find useful genes that can help these crops to resist pests, diseases and water stress conditions. Private investments could be encouraged in this area through strong PPP projects.

Encouraging farmers to grow pulses as mixed crops with sugar cane and to bring 1.2 mha of additional cultivation of pulses in rice fallow lands is a good step. Increased yields and production should not reduce the price realisation of the farmers. Market reforms to improve profitability are critical. While the new e-NAM is expected to help, we may have to make more efforts in setting up village-level primary processing and grading centres. The government may encourage new entrepreneurs and FPOs to jump in by providing them with policy and funding support.

We also need a long-term and predictable policy environment for import and export of pulses. Sudden decisions to import can land the farmers in distress.

Pulses need to be included in PDS and in the mid-day meals to improve nutrition standards.

Another reason for encouraging cultivation is the water efficiency of the crop. One-hectare millimetre of water can produce 12.5 kg of Bengal gram while it can produce only 7 kg of wheat and 2.5 kg of paddy. They also fix nitrogen in the soil, thereby improving the soil health.

It is time to convert some of the acreages under cereals to grow pulses. This will help bring greater balance to the crop portfolio, especially considering the changing food basket. It is also better for the environment.

The author is Director General, FSII. Views are personal

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