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It all starts with the right Seeds: Sanjiv Lal, MD & CEO, Rallis India Ltd.

Sowing Seeds

Selecting the right seed can considerably mitigate the risks faced by millions of farmers in India. 

Even a cursory glance at India’s farm sector will reveal a plethora of paradoxes.  Since the start of the Green and White Revolutions in the second half of the 1960s and the early 1970s respectively, the country has emerged as one of the world’s largest agricultural economies. Today, India is the world’s largest producer of a range of farm products including milk and pulses, and the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnut, to name a few.   

In absolute output terms, India is one of the top cereal producers in the world and yet holds a dismal record when it comes to productivity (kg per hectare).  World Bank data for the six decades between 1961 and 2018 rank cereal output from India’s farm sector at 108 with an average yield of around 3,200 kgs per hectare against the world average of around 4,100 kgs. According to 2010-11 agriculture census, around 140 million hectares are operational with an average landholding at around 1.15 hectares.  An estimated 80-85% is classified as marginal and small farms or less than 2 hectares. Today the country’s farm sector contributes a little less than 20% of the national GDP. 

Despite the big strides we have taken in terms of mechanisation and large-scale application of technology, agriculture as a source of livelihood remains a high-risk gamble for millions of Indian farmers.  Farm output in India (as in the rest of the world) depends on a whole range of variables such as quality of land, vagaries of monsoon, access to technology, capital and markets including exports and quality of farm inputs including seeds, irrigation, nutrients and fertilizers.   

We reap what we sow, but....

Selection of the right seed, simple as it may seem, is both an art and science.  We can find any number of agriculture scientists who will vouch for this. For example, paddy farmers have a tiny window of less than two weeks between sowing and germination that will decide his or her livelihood for the rest of the year. Established standard practices like a system of rice intensification aimed at improving yield do provide some measure of predictability in terms of success, but hardly guarantees it. The genetic potential, germination, purity and vigour of the seeds determine the yield. The practice of treating seeds to protect the crop from disease incidence, especially fungal diseases has been in vogue for some time. With the emergence of new pests like fall armyworm in cereals like maize, treatment of seeds with pesticides that can control the pest during early developmental stages has also gained traction. A combination of the intrinsic potential of the seed, its quality and external value additions through treatment can go a long way in ensuring good plant stand, crop development and yield. 

Seed science, a multi-billion dollar backed field offers great hope for millions of farmers around the world and more so in a largely technology-impoverished farm sector in India.  A combination of factors including access to technology either due to lack of knowledge or unaffordability is forcing large swathes of Indian farmers to bank on traditional practices to choose the seeds that they believe are best suited for their patch of land.  Selecting individual seeds from a sack and eliminating the ‘duds’ by naked-eye inspection is still a very common practice in India. Consistency of the seed is vital to ensure that they germinate at the same time and produce consistent quality of output that is easy to sell and fetch a good price.  This is a painful process and does not guarantee success.   

Today farmers can select seeds from sources like – farm saved seeds, selection/research/open pollinated varieties, F1 hybrids and GM (Genetically Modified) seeds.  An F1 hybrid is produced by cross-pollination of plants to have seeds with desired characteristics to enhance quality or yield that has been in vogue for several decades now.  GM seeds go one step further in ensuring that crops are saved from pests and other plant diseases they may be predisposed to. Another approach that is being extensively deployed by both the private sector and the public sector is the molecular breeding technology through which native tolerance to insects and pests can be imparted to chosen varieties. 

The availability of rice varieties with tolerance to bacterial leaf blight, fungal blast diseases and brown plant hopper is picking up and can significantly contribute to yield preservation. According to Federation of Seed Industry of India, crop biotechnology reduces the use of chemical pesticides by 37 percent resulting in a considerable increase of yield by 22 percent and profits of farmers by 68 percent.  GM seeds are also created to overcome challenges posed by weeds, climate change etc.  

Despite the availability of these science-based solutions, the adoption rates in India continue to remain low. For example, more than 90 per cent of paddy cultivation uses non-hybrid or Open Pollinated Varieties (OPV) of seeds or inbred ones. GM seeds continue to remain a hotly debated subject in India and has managed to make its way into cotton (only GM seed allowed in India) where more than 90% of the cash crop’s acreage coming under it.  Sadly, farmers in many parts of India continue to use unapproved GM seeds, a grey area that shows a big cause of concern for all of us. 

Doubling of farmers’ income or DFI has been one of the key missions the government has been pursuing since 2016 with 2022 as the year we hope to realise this dream.  For several reasons and in no small measure due to the current pandemic, this target at best looks tenuous as of now.  It may get delayed, but a mosaic of measures put in place by the government including fiscal support will get us there sooner than later.  Selecting the right seeds that addresses the needs of a biodiverse country like India will be one of the right steps in that direction.  

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