If one were to go by what one sees in the local media, Goa’s agricultural scene seems to be going through a renaissance of sorts. Virtually every day brings a new story of agricultural success and initiative – whether it’s strawberries in Sanguem, greenhouse capsicums in Saligao, organic mangoes in Chorao, SRI rice in Salcete, the Mango Fest at Kala Academy or a Farmers’ Federation website on the internet.
Considering the perennial backdrop of bleak news that usually accompanies agriculture, and the reality of Goa’s food insecurity, this is a silver lining that undoubtedly creates a welcome bit of optimism. However, a closer look at the bigger picture reveals that there is little impact on the larger realities of our situation.
A formal agricultural vision or policy to begin with?
Common sense suggests that the ambition of Goa’s agriculture must be to create food self-sufficiency through a reliable supply of good quality – that covers taste and nutrition, by the way, – food, which is reasonably priced and of varieties preferred for local cuisine. If this goal is worthwhile, then the reality is that today, we are very, very far from achieving this aim – and have made little sustainable progress towards it.
Interestingly, Goa still lacks a clearly stated agricultural policy – which would seem like a necessary pre-requisite if a larger and more sustainable impetus is to be provided to agriculture. In the absence of this, and with a system that is only subsidy-focussed, it sometimes seems like the approach is to bribe people to continue farming.
Five years of a reasonably involved participation in Goan agriculture have given us a sense that the key problems remain – a lack of ambitious vision and goals, complacency about the current state of agriculture, poor strategic decisions and a systemic lack of execution. However, it is also equally apparent that Goa has several assets that make it capable of dramatic improvement – its locational advantages, many genuinely sincere agricultural officers, sufficient financial resources, great natural advantages and a continuing deep cultural affinity to agriculture.
Too much novelty, distracts from things that really work
However, before attempting to begin an agricultural revolution in Goa, it’s important to undertake some serious introspection into which current approaches are clearly not working – because our resources may be adequate, but are certainly not enough to permit waste. While there are several useful schemes offered by the Department of Agriculture, the ICAR and the Horticultural Corporation, there are some which clearly require re-evaluation. These are listed here.
The ‘improvement through exports’ approach: There is a perennial desire to encourage growing for export amongst agricultural departments in the hope that the premium that markets pay abroad are a way to achieve better income for farmers. This is misplaced because for anything but the large-scale, export-focussed operations, paperwork is a full-time job. There is also little evidence that Goa has the quality of produce (except for select crops), the quantity of produce or the marketing skills required to achieve this. A better approach would be to serve the local market in Goa (which we know also pays well) and treat our annual influx of tourists as an export market. This would mean that we need to start growing to deliver real quality and variety of produce that only local farms can deliver – while also serving the goal of food security that local growers provide.
The ‘improvement through technology’ approach: As a solution to the high costs and lack of availability of agricultural labour, the Department of Agriculture has been on a technology drive. Mechanisation is riding a wave in Goa, which initially seems like a boon for the ’hard-working farmer‘. Except that many of the wonderful tractors, power tillers and other equipment that taxpayers subsidise end up hardly working (through our experience in Chorao and elsewhere). In a state where farm sizes are very small, farmer-owned machinery is often hopelessly under-utilised, poorly-maintained and often of limited assistance to farmers.
Similarly, technology-oriented schemes like those that provide for electric fencing and sophisticated greenhouses are very popular (90% subsidy available), but it’s questionable if they provide good value for money in the context of Goa. At Rs 8-10 lakh per unit we already see that the growing model for greenhouses – gerbera, capsicum and cucumbers – is overly simplistic.
The ‘improvement through growing exotics’ approach: Growing strawberries and capsicums in Goa is novel and frankly pretty amazing – and we can’t pretend that we’re immune to growing them, because we have. But experimenting in a garden as a hobby and cultivating on a farm for income are two very different things. It seems unlikely that it will be the most profitable one for local farmers, because mono-crops of cash crops rarely work in the long run. Eventually the competition from cheaper sources with a climate or cost-of-labour advantage like Mahabaleshwar will probably win over. Also, the pricing of cash crops is often volatile – because of variable demand due to external factors.
Crucial problems that continue to go un-addressed
- The state continues to have no formal farming policy – in the absence of which a cohesive strategy and clear goals seem absent. The policy is necessary given the deficit of food production which threatens long-term food quality and availability, especially as relations with Karnataka decline due to water disputes.
- Legal issues related to use of the land itself continue to go unaddressed thus creating a great deal of insecurity that prevents land from being leased out to people actually interested in agriculture. The subsidies also continue to be tied to land ownership instead of to farming activity, creating challenges for farmers.
- Irrigation is another key issue and there seem to be few solutions for this on the ground – despite all the rainfall we get and the considerable expenditure on dams that were intended to provide a fillip to agriculture (but may not as the water will be demanded for urban use). Larger scale activities for improving watershed and water management do not see sufficient investment and are largely neglected.
- Farmer’s access to markets remains limited and a crucial impediment – the Farmers Market policy seems to have made little headway though it’s a great idea. Other online initiatives like the Farmers’ Federation website cannot have a widespread impact because government fundamentally lacks the skills to market.
Some alternative guidelines for agricultural development
While it’s pretty simple to criticise what is happening to agriculture in Goa, we believe that this can be constructive only when it is accompanied by reasonable alternatives – and not just ideas that can never be implemented.
If there is an agreement that Goan agriculture should aim to achieve a significant degree of food self-sufficiency (say 50% to begin with) over the next couple of decades, then it’s important to set some broader guidelines to enable this to happen.
Set the focus on urban agriculture to bring quality to food production – the fields around the cities of Goa (for example, in Taleigao) must be preserved and aggressively developed for agriculture. This reduces the costs and logistics required for growing and also dramatically improves the quality and freshness of the produce applicable to its citizens (as well as farmers’ access to markets). A special policy that encourages and supports market gardens for growing vegetables and fruits is the key to this, along with setting up spaces for farmers’ markets. Models like development-supported agriculture provide several useful ideas for this.
Invest in the software and not just in the hardware: In developing economies like ours, too much investment is made in hardware (technology and products) and not in the software (the local knowledge, skills and experience) that is critical for achieving the results. In this area Goa has failed considerably, with local traditional knowledge fading and not documented in a meaningful way, a lack of effectiveness of skill development initiatives for key skills related to agriculture and the absence of a broadly accepted, professional knowledge forum like an agricultural university.
Invest in building a new model of agriculture for the youth: The revival of agriculture across the globe is visible from the thriving organic farming movements – which are driven not by the old and experienced, but by a youthful new generation of wannabe farmers. Goa needs to similarly create an ecosystem that encourages farm entrepreneurship amongst a younger generation and to develop schemes, spaces and education to engage them with farming.
Invest in special agricultural zones in rural areas: Small city farms cannot produce enough of everything needed for the state, but farms in rural areas need to have simplified access to logistics, processing and supporting agricultural services. A system of several decentralised special agricultural zones (in areas where farming activity is strong) can create sufficient economies of scale without becoming unwieldy and will enable more efficient use of mechanisation that the present situation suggests.
Innovation to differentiating Goa’s agricultural produce: When it comes to markets of any kind, differentiation is critical to achieving success. Goa has the opportunity to really differentiate itself in a meaningful way by becoming a hub for organic farming in India – by producing organic fruits and processed food products. There exists a local affinity for organic produce in our state, a tourist market that appreciates it, and reasonable proximity to urban centres that value it (Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai) too.
Yogita Mehra and Karan Manral have been working across different areas related to agriculture since 2009. This includes working with the Chorao Island Farmers Club to conduct several marketing experiments and to create support and infrastructure for farmers on the island of Chorao. They have also been working on different community initiatives to re-connect consumers with local produce and farming – through workshops (via Green Essentials), farm visits, agricultural events like the Konkan Fruit Fest, and most recently through their own Yogi Farms and Goa’s first organic market for vegetables.