Agriculture: Foodgrain storage

Every grain saved is a grain produced

Even though agriculture is considered a State subject, the National Food Security Act of 2013 requires uninterrupted food supply to fulfil its mandate. Thus, the storage and protection of foodgrains are very much under the purview of the Central Government. It is incumbent upon the Centre to help Punjab, Haryana and western UP set up proper scientific storage facilities. The adage ‘waste not, want not’ is quite apt.

Every grain saved is a grain produced

AT the time of Independence, India’s wheat production was 7 million tonnes, while the country’s population was 340 million. In 2020, wheat production reached 109 million tonnes — a 15.5 times’ jump compared to the 1947 production.

Manjit S. Kang

AT the time of Independence, India’s wheat production was 7 million tonnes, while the country’s population was 340 million. In 2020, wheat production reached 109 million tonnes — a 15.5 times’ jump compared to the 1947 production. India’s population touched 1,380 million in 2020 — a 4.1 times’ increase over the 1947 figure. Thus, the wheat production rate of increase was about four times greater than the population growth rate. In 1968, the country’s wheat production reached 17 million tonnes and the government released a postage stamp titled ‘Wheat Revolution’ that year. Punjab, being the hub of this unprecedented rise in wheat production, did not have facilities to store the produce. During the summer, wheat had to be stored in schools that were closed for the season. The term ‘Green Revolution’ was given by William Gaud, who was the USAID administrator at the time.

India’s rice production was 20.6 million tonnes in 1951 and it reached 122 million tonnes in 2020 — a 5.9 times’ increase over the 1951 figure. India’s total foodgrain production was around 308 million tonnes (includes coarse grains and pulses) in 2020. While foodgrain production has been spectacular, especially in the food-bowl states of Punjab, Haryana, and western UP, foodgrain storage infrastructure has not kept pace. As of 2018 figures, India’s total grain storage capacity was 88 million tonnes — of which some 13 million tonnes were in the Cover and Plinth (CAP) storage under the skies. Foodgrains kept in CAP storage under tarpaulin sheets are vulnerable to fungi, rodents, birds and moisture.

According to the Food Corporation of India’s (FCI’s) directions, foodgrains should be stored in covered godowns and silos. CAP storage should only be used when procurement by the government is at its peak. It seems these directions are not being followed. The wheat stored in silos can remain eatable for four to five years, but that stored in the open (e.g., CAP storage) gets damaged within a year. The damaged foodgrains are not fit for consumption even by animals and are sold for other purposes, such as producing alcohol, at very low rates.

India’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has made substantial progress during the past 40 years or so: $557 (in 1980), $2,018 (in 2000) and $6,977 (in 2019), which was 2.8%, 4.16%, and 7.09% of the world per capita GDP, respectively. Despite the positive growth in GDP and despite the fact that food is the most important basic need of humans, investment in scientific grain storage infrastructure has remained low.

According to the figures released by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, 62,000 tonnes of foodgrains were lost in FCI warehouses during 2011 and 2017, of which 8,600 tonnes were lost in 2016-17. Foodgrain wastage is a serious threat to the country’s food security. Food security is the situation when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.

The world observes September 29 each year as International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Food Waste. The reason for this is obvious — substantial quantities of foodgrains and perishable fruits and vegetables are wasted. Millions of people in the country go to bed hungry every day. Their numbers have gone up due to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, 250 gm of foodgrains per day per person is required for survival. The incurred loss of foodgrains could feed at least seven crore people.

The wastage of food is also a waste of our precious natural resources such as water and minerals. Such wastage must be avoided and food systems should be made more efficient. Food losses and waste are unacceptable both from ethical and economic points of view.

Even though agriculture is considered a State subject, the National Food Security Act of 2013 requires uninterrupted food supply to fulfil its mandate. Thus, the storage and protection of foodgrains are very much under the purview of the Central Government. It is incumbent upon the Centre to help Punjab, Haryana and western UP set up proper scientific storage facilities. According to Prof MS Swaminathan, with whom I toured various foodgrain storage facilities in Punjab and witnessed first hand the condition of grains produced by farmers with care, the cost of building silos to store 1 million tonnes of foodgrains could be around Rs 700 crore (not including the cost of land). The Central Government should allocate Rs 10,000 crore to create a grain storage capacity of 15 million tonnes in the food-bowl states. Public-Private Partnership (PPP) could work here, with the government providing the land needed and the private players investing capital to construct silos.

Farmers should be helped financially to have an on-farm 5-20-tonne foodgrain storage facility so that they do not have to sell their produce immediately after the harvest, allowing them to sell at a better price later. The government could incentivise farmers to form cooperatives (e.g., Farmer Producer Organisation or FPOs) to set up storage facilities. This could be done by creating clusters of 5-10 villages. On-farm storage is strongly recommended.

The government must ensure that after procurement, the foodgrains are sent as soon as possible from the food-bowl states to those states where these are needed. For this, they would have to enhance the capacity of wagons and increase the number of goods trains. The quantity of foodgrains despatched per day could be increased from 40,000 tonnes to more than 1 lakh tonnes for the purposes of PDS, ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme), PM-Poshan scheme, etc.

Agriculture not only contributes to India’s GDP but also offers a substantial amount to national exports. Investment in overall agricultural research and development (R&D) will need to be increased substantially. India’s overall outlay for R&D has been substantially less than that of China, Japan and the US. Agriculture also sustains industry by providing raw material.

Every ounce of foodgrains saved through scientific storage techniques should be considered as grain produced (‘hidden harvest’). The 10-20% of the foodgrains wasted could be regarded as equivalent to a new ‘Green Revolution’. The adage ‘waste not, want not’ is quite apt here.

The author is former V-C, PAU, Ludhiana

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