Towards India’s next Green Revolution - Hindustan Times

Towards India’s next Green Revolution

ByHindustan Times
Nov 02, 2023 07:06 PM IST

This article is co-authored by Parth Goyal, manager, Potash Analysis and Huw McKay, chief economist, BHP.

India’s first Green Revolution was one of the most important events of the 20th century in terms of its mass impact on human welfare. It was also arguably the greatest achievement of the first half century of Independence. As part of the next step in its evolution towards a modern, prosperous, and abundant society, India should pursue a second green revolution, built on the foundations of the first. This would not only achieve the narrow objective of maintaining food security and getting closer to the panacea of Atmanirbhar (self-sufficiency) – it would also help catalyse the virtuous circles of synergistic rural-urban interactions that are so vital to the successful navigation of the middle income stage of economic development.

Green revolution(Representational photo/ Getty Images) PREMIUM
Green revolution(Representational photo/ Getty Images)

India needs a second Green Revolution partly because what is already the world’s largest population is expected to grow by almost 250 million over the next 30 years. That is the equivalent of adding another Japan and another Mexico to global food demand. It also needs a second green revolution because calorie intake per day is currently 10% below the global average, and remaining at that relatively low level is inconsistent with the high aspirations of Indian society. Bringing those two trends together – many more people enjoying greater food availability – we estimate that India will need to raise farm produce by at least 30% by 2050.

As arable land is finite, and competition for that land from other uses such as renewable energy generation, afforestation, biodiversity programs and expanding cities is intensifying, this objective can only be achieved through a second step-wise increase in the productivity of land under cultivation. And despite the considerable successes of India’s first green revolution, with crop yields rising four-fold over the last 60 years, there is still headroom for India’s farm productivity to move closer to the global frontier. Specifically, compared to international peers, yields are estimated to be around 20% lower than the global average today.

At a more detailed level, consider the top three food grains that India produces: Rice, wheat and corn. China leads the production of rice and wheat with around 20% world share and attains over 50% higher yields compared to India. The United States leads corn production with around a 30% world share and attains over three times the yields achieved in India. That large variance in regional yields is mainly ascribed to differences in soil management, health and soil fertility.

Soil fertility is greatly impacted by the nutrients supplied through fertilisers – the primary ones being nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K - potash). India has historically over-applied nitrogen and phosphorus, relative to potash, leading to a considerable nutrient imbalance in Indian soils. This has led to an unsustainable withdrawal of native potassium from the soil, leading to long term depletion of soil health.

In the last 30 years, fertiliser use per area of cropland in terms of the NPK ratio for India stands at 7:2:1 (rounded), compared to 4:1:1 for China and 3:1:1 for the US. The world average also sits at 3:1:1. Brazil, which has one of the most mechanised farming sectors in the world, also achieves the best crop productivity in the world, despite a modest natural soil endowment. It operates at a balanced NPK ratio of 1:1:1.

These ratios reflect a range of factors, including local soil, climate conditions and crop choice. India’s over application of nitrogen is mainly due to ample indigenous supply and government policies making nitrogen use more affordable, compared to other fertilisers.

However, as Liebig’s law of the minimum emphasises, it is the “yield-limiting nutrient” that controls plant growth, even if all other essential nutrients are abundant. Simply put, throwing more nitrogen at a crop that is already sated with N but is thirsting for K is throwing money away, and harming the biosphere at the same time as excess macronutrients find their way into the atmosphere or leach and run off into ground or fresh water.

So, when we think about what steps might be taken to spark India’s second Green Revolution, we go first to farmer education on the core fundamental practices of nutrient balance. There are, of course, other issues that could help, such as land reform, marketing reform, subsidy reform, higher technology penetration and greater financial inclusion in rural areas – yet these are not politically uncontroversial themes. Less controversial is making the case to converge NPK ratios closer to global norms, and then consider what steps should be taken, given that overarching objective. The government’s inclusion of potash in the recently released critical minerals list is a prudent step.

This article is co-authored by Parth Goyal, manager, Potash Analysis and Huw McKay, chief economist, BHP.

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