The Dutch Model for Indian Agriculture

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Image: Public Domain
India faces a crisis of agricultural productivity if it wants to feed the next billion. The Dutch model may be a solution.

There are two facts about the Netherlands and India which highlight the dramatic differences between the two nations – especially when it comes to farming. One is that Netherlands is 80 times smaller than India. The other is that the Dutch export nine times more in value of agricultural produce.

Indian farmers are the country’s largest, and arguably poorest, demographic. As per the 2011 Census, 263 million people work as labourers or cultivators in Indian farms. Despite registering growth in the last few decades, the agricultural sector has been grim in the last few decades. One farmer suicide every 32 minutes. Farming is considered to be unpredictable, unprofitable and unsustainable livelihood for many. The failing rains, rising costs of fertilizer and predatory moneylenders all contribute to an industry that is more a hazard than an opportunity.

The comparison could not be starker than when you look at the Netherlands. Blending historical lessons with the latest agro-farmingming technology, Dutch farmers are proving their brilliance at farming. Netherlands is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world (India ranks at number seven) as well as the leading provider of agricultural education. National Geographic calls them the country that feeds the world.

They followed a simple motto: “Twice as much food using half as many resources.”

Learning from history

In the winter of 1944/45, Netherlands was struck by famine as a result of the Nazi occupation. In response to a railway strike, the Nazis cut off food supplies to the western part of the country. Even trains to the region were halted. More than 20,000 died in what was called the Hongerwinter – Hunger Winter. A young Audrey Hepburn was one of its victims – one who bore the effects of malnourishment for the rest of her life.

Just a year earlier, under British policies, more than three million died of famine in Bengal, India. Winston Churchill ordered food supplies to be diverted to recovering soldiers, controversially saying that the “starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis (was) less serious than [that of] sturdy Greeks.”

Both countries emerged from their respective occupations. Neither were to suffer from famine again. In India, agricultural productivity was given its greatest boost by the ‘Green Revolution’, which introduced high-yield seed varieties as well as improved fertilizer and irrigation technologies.

In the Netherlands, a brief spurt of growth by the discovery of oil was tempered by the alternate discovery – that of the ‘Dutch Disease‘. Coined by an Economist in 1977, it was termed an effect of a natural-resource driven economy. The export of oil and influx of forex led to an inflated Dutch currency; making all other sectors of the economy uncompetitive.

While India focussed on achieving self-sufficiency, the Netherlands took the opposite approach. Essential foods like wheat, meat, corn and oil seeds were imported. This was to no surprise; since the 17th century the Dutch have relied on Europe for its grain, for example. But now, the focus was on value-addition; building up a prominent presence in the processing foods industry, a high-value dairy industry and growing fruits and vegetables that were for the top shelves of European consumers.

While India’s agricultural productivity gains were petering out, the Netherlands kept pumping money into its welfare programs; curbing out inefficiencies in the 1990s, and increasing their productivity. A Dutch cow today yields twice as much milk as it would have in the 1960s. Agriculture was for the market, but welfare was for the people. Dutch investments into agricultural research resulted in institutes like the Wageningen University, ranked the world’s number one in agriculture and forestry.

By the turn of the century, Netherlands was one of the most high-tech countries in the field of agriculture. But if Netherlands was the second largest exporter by value, India was the second largest producer by output.

The difference was that Indian agriculture largely fed a domestic market. But the slowdown and in some cases, absence, of productivity gains in Indian agriculture, suggest that there is great room for improvement. In many ways, little had changed since the Green revolution, as many farmers rely heavily on seed variants, fertilizer and irrigation. This has prompted calls for another revolution, this time driven by Genetically Modified (GM) crops.

This is where the Dutch model becomes most pertinent to India. Sustainability was the driving force, and the result is a combination of best practices. Manure is re-used, rainwater is utilized over irrigation, climate-controlled and LED-lit greenhouses provide 24/7 growth – and increasingly, robots are used to automate and reduce the cost of agricultural labour. Even GM crop research, of which Netherlands is a leader, has been to produce improved seeds through molecular breeding. That is, picking out and breeding the best genetic traits without importing foreign ones – a technique that dates back thousands of years.

Data is a huge part of this Dutch experiment. Everything from the soil to the lighting conditions are monitored and designed to achieve maximum utility. Cows are milked by large rotating machines, several times more efficient than using human labour. And drones, hovering above the large farms, allow farmers to target pests on a plant by plant basis – reducing the excessive spraying of pesticide.

But how much of this is scaleable to Indian conditions?

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Image: Public Domain

The answer depends on how India attempts to improve its agricultural productivity. It’s no secret that labour is fleeing the farming sector – even though, by absolute numbers, more people are working in farms than ever before. But as a percentage of employment, agriculture is in decline.

The problem is an old one – too many people are farming too little land. It’s the reason why 250,000 farmers in the United States can produce more than 263 million farmers and labourers in India. The average farm size is 26 hectares in the Netherlands; in India, it is less than two.

Indian farming is often compared to that of China, Brazil and the United States in terms of its low productivity. But these are large countries – which nevertheless make greater use of their land than we do. The Netherlands emerges as an efficient model; but only if both investment and innovation are brought into the Indian farming sector. The traditional way – at least, that followed since the Green Revolution – is no longer the sustainable one.

By 2050, India will have to feed 1.7 billion people. Agriculture will have to double its pace to meet the newfound demand – and even then, there is no assurance that groundwater will last that long. There is a need for reform in irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and cropping; not to mention in setting prices and regulation.

Learning from the Netherlands would be a matter of tapping into their latest export – Dutch expertise in agriculture. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan have already brought in Dutch techniques and technology to improve their productivity. Granted, the problems of Indian farmers are not technocratic alone. But the problem of feeding the next billion is mathematical. And as the math currently stands, Indian farms are not producing enough.

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