The six states in mid-west USA are large producers of corn and soybean. Over time these states have expanded production (that touched a peak 361 million tonnes in 2015), taking massive recourse to technology. Universities in this region like Wisconsin-Madison help achieve constant improvements in yields that average around 10,000 kg per acre (in India the average is around 800 kg). For decades the region has been accounting for massive exports of corn (around 40 million tonnes last year) and corn products. In recent years a sizeable portion of production of corn is used for producing ethanol for powering automobiles. In several states a blend with ethanol has been made mandatory.
In the mid-western states I noticed no great dams, irrigation systems and canals. Seasonal rains of the region are largely found adequate to irrigate the crop. Water has been used so effectively! Combined with precision farming techniques taking liberal recourse to technology, rich harvests have been realised.
The main lesson is the selection of crop that is so perfectly aligned to the agro-climatic conditions. I noticed such an approach in Florida focusing on oranges and in California with its desert like conditions (just 10 inches of rain a year) flourishing in the production of almonds, grapes and tomatoes (against 38 inches for Tamil Nadu).
For three decades I have been suggesting such a practice for India. Historically, different regions have been raising crops to individual preferences. The desire to be self-sufficient, family-wise and village-wise, resulted in raising crops unmindful of their suitability or economics. Every region producing rice illustrates this. Such an approach was understandable in the era of little cross country trading in food-grains or little surplus in production over demand. The concept of self-sufficiency at the state level had lost its meaning over four decades ago when the country moved from shortage to surplus in most agricultural products.
In this background one is appalled at the lack of attention to the selection of crops most suited to the agro climatic endowments of a particular region. The recent widespread drought experienced by several states point to the absurdity of persisting with the cultivation of water-intensive crops in such regions subjected to visitations of drought. Marathwada region in Maharashtra is among the worst hit by drought but it persists with raising the water-intensive sugarcane.
Sugarcane is raised over two lakh hectares in the eight districts of this region. Such a practice is also witnessed in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu that have not been well-endowed with water resources. The practice is sustained by frequent and huge increase in the state-advised price for sugarcane and free power for agriculture in Tamil Nadu. Over the last four decades the price for sugarcane in Tamil Nadu had shot up from Rs 78 per tonne to around Rs 2600 per tonne. With elections around and with an eye on the votes of sugarcane farmers, political parties breezily promise even Rs 4000 per tonne.
For decades a licence for sugar mill is part of political patronage. This is quite evident from the large number of sugar co-operatives led by politicians of different hues in Maharashtra. In Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister M G Ramachandran gifted sugar mill licences to his close friends like G Varadaraj, Palani G Periasamy and S Viswanathan of Seshasayee Group.
Sugarcane is a water guzzler. The country should focus on producing sugar as it did historically in water surplus states like Bihar and UP.
Few states have bothered to tackle effectively the seasonal character of sugar production. Despite the sustained success of utilising bagasse for the production of paper by Tamil Nadu, other states are content to focus on sugar and alcohol. Lack of policy backup by the Centre over four decades has resulted in the neglect of newsprint production in large scale or in utilising molasses for the production of ethanol for powering automobiles.
It is so easy for courts to ban IPL matches in drought – struck Maharashtra; but don’t we need more attention to water use by crops? Like the US? Like Gujarat, states should select crops most suited to their agro-climatic endowments.