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Slump in wheat output threatens food security

Wheat production has come down from 76 million tonnes (MT) in 1999-2000 to 74 MT this year, reports Saikat Neogi.

business Updated: Jun 13, 2007 02:23 IST
Saikat Neogi

Back in 1965, with a mere 12 million tonnes of wheat produced, India was abysmally short of food. Forty-two years and a Green Revolution later, India's food security is once again at risk.

Lands under wheat cultivation are shrinking, seed and fertiliser costs are rising, and yields are declining. As a result, India's wheat harvest is far from rising to meet the demands of a growing population.

Wheat production has come down from 76 million tonnes (MT) in 1999-2000 to 74 MT this year. Substantially below the 76 MT target, it has impelled the government to import 5 MT of the grain for the second consecutive year.

S Nagarajan, former director of Indian Agricultural Research Institute, has said: "Following the peak production of 1999-2000, there was a growing confidence that India would soon produce 78 MT of wheat and will achieve the 109 MT target requirement by 2020." But stagnating production, changes in policy with regard to inputs, and globalisation pressures have all put this long-term goal at risk.

What is the root cause of this decline in production? Ramesh Chand, professor at the National Centre for Agriculture Economics and Policy Research (NCAEPR) explains that many farmers in North India's wheat belt, such as those in Punjab and Haryana, are now cultivating more profitable cash crops instead. The setting up of industries in large tracts of this belt has further aggravated the situation.

In fact, the total area under wheat cultivation in the country has declined from 28 million hectares (mha) in 1998-99 to 26 mha last year. And with the average per hectare wheat yield being 2.7 MT, the loss of each million hectare in cultivated area leads to a shortfall of 2.5 MT.

The availability of good quality seed is also crucial for higher yields. Although more than 60 different kinds of high-yielding seeds are produced in India, around 40 per cent of the farmers sow low-yielding seeds because these are cheaper. This is directly related to the drop in yield from 2778 kg/hectare in 1999-2000 to 2617 kg/hectare this year.

Declining production in turn affects the government's buffer stocks and public distribution system procurements. The latter have dropped, by 55 per cent, from an all-time high of 21 MT in 2002 to 9 MT last year. Even this year, though these procurements increased marginally to 10.75 MT, they are far behind the government's target of 15 MT.

Given these conditions, it is not surprising that the price of wheat rose by a sharp 17 per cent last year, forcing the government to ban futures trading in wheat. Experts feel that these prices will rise even further this year. Ramesh Chand of NCAEPR warns that, without wheat production growing at 2 per cent every year, India's food security itself is endangered.