For India and agriculture

A WORLD TRANSFORMED

half a century has transformed India from a poster child for hunger – in the 1950s everyone knew about “the starving millions in India” – to an agricultural powerhouse capable in most years of feeding its own people and exporting a number of major commodities.

India sells soybean meal, ships low-cost beef to Southeast Asia, and competes with the United States for international corn markets.  Since the mid-1990s, this country that once couldn’t feed itself has typically been the third or fourth largest rice exporter in the world.

Now India’s economic transformation is creating new demand in its agricultural sector, as a growing middle class wants more food and more variety – and that means further change for India’s role in world agricultural trade.

INDIAN CORN IN STORAGE

The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected some of those changes in its Long-term Projections, released in February.

Indians’ demand for meat, milk, and eggs – especially for more poultry – is likely to mean stronger domestic markets for soybean meal and a decline in soybean meal exports from more than four million metric tons (mmt) in recent years to 1.5 mmt by 2021.

Increased vegetable oil demands and a limited capacity to expand domestic oilseed processing suggest India could replace China as the world’s largest importer of soybean oil, with purchases rising by 28% to 1.2 mmt in the same period.   

India’s wheat exports, which topped 5.6 mmt as recently as 2003/04, are projected to fall at or below the 1 mmt mark for most of the coming decade.

An independent analysis of the world wheat trade to 2030 is consistent with USDA’s projections, according to Steve Mercer, communications director for the U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), which conducted the analysis. 

“In general, it shows that demand is growing fastest in the world’s middle latitudes where population is growing fastest,” says Mercer.  “But wheat grows best above and below those latitudes.”

By 2050, the USW analysis suggests India will be importing 12.5 mmt of wheat annually to feed 1.6 billion people.

“Like many nations, India’s apparent long-term policy is to be self-sufficient in food,” says Ronald Trostle, a USDA economist who worked on the projections.

“When prices go up, agricultural production responds, even in a place like India.  They have a fairly strong research and development program resulting in a fairly strong increase in productivity.  They’ve got fairly substantial growth in yields and are projected to continue with good growth rates for most of their crops.

“Genetic modification is paying off for them in cotton and a couple of grains, and they’ve shifted to new production technologies in some areas,” he says.  “Still, they always depend on the monsoon from year to year.  In some years, that means they will be exporters; in other years, they will have to rely on imports or draw down stocks.”

At the U.S. Grains Council, Rebecca Bratter, vice president of international operations,  outlines key decisions for the future of India’s agricultural sector and ag trade.

“India’s government policies have opened up significantly, and tariffs have come down,” says Bratter, who travels to India frequently.

“Still, access is very difficult for agriculture.  The government needs to make some decisions on food security and whether they see trade as a key to assuring India’s food security and the quality of life for its people. 

“We believe it’s key for them to decide at the federal and state level,” she continues.  “The real challenge is at the state level.  India’s state governments have a lot of autonomy in agriculture.”

Bratter outlines several other critical issues that will depend on government policy decisions:  “How will they view technology in agriculture and science-based management of imports?  How will they handle planning, the setting of prices, and will they improve price discovery mechanisms?  Will they keep existing buffers in place for wheat and rice?”

Like Trostle, she highlights the influence of India’s huge and growing middle class and the big leap in consumer purchasing power.

“It’s producing a big change in diets. In addition, Indians are returning from living in the European Union and the United States, where they have developed new tastes.  It’s a more open society, where you increasingly see younger people acting in important positions.  Globalization is really taking hold. 

“They are using more poultry, more dairy, more eggs,” she says.  “The question is how India will balance out the needs of a growing economy, a growing middle class, and adjust to being a world economic player.  Will the government adjust to that role or not?”  •