India's high food prices may have their origins in the lab, not just the markets. Farm scientists, therefore, are also giving a shot at fighting food inflation. Welcome to the weirdly innovative world of the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research (IIHR), a cutting-edge government facility outside Bangalore.
Research at the institute has led to an overhaul of India's entire range of commonly consumed, traditional vegetable varieties. The current generation of Indians eats a completely new array of disease-resistant and high-yielding hybrid veggies. And therefore pays a higher price.
Consumers now commonly have grapes and melons without seeds, capsicums that are a shiny yellow, tomatoes that are fleshier, French beans without fibrous strings that make them easy to cut and, also, anytime-of-the year cabbage, etc.But quality comes with at a price. About 10 gm of "triple-disease-resistant" tomato seeds sell for Rs 650, which ultimately shows up in retail prices. Hybrids — any veggie you pick is one — are a technological leap, but they also hold the clue to why vegetables are not easy on the pocket anymore.
Having fought the pests, scientists at the Bangalore institute — a wing of the flagship Indian Council of Agricultural Research — are now fighting an unlikely enemy they have inadvertently strengthened: high prices.
Senior scientist B Balakrishna of the IIHR oversees a group of 55 farmers who collectively farm over 100 acres of high-value vegetables, such as European cucumber and pick-rose onions grown in climate-controlled "polyhouses".
The scientists first assess demand in the local markets in terms of quantity and quality, and then employ a group of aggregators to collect the produce at an assured price, who would further sell to the markets.
The key is to buy at a constant but profitable price from farmers and sell them further with a 15% mark-up.
"This has ensured a largely continuous, stable price," Balakrishna said.