Half a century of agriculture in Kerala: Problems and prospects
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 01 Aug 2020 3 Comments

An old proverb says “Agriculture in India is a gamble in the monsoon”. When we say monsoon, it includes the main south-west monsoon, which normally spreads between early-June and October-end and north-east monsoon which normally lasts from mid-late November until February-end. Summer rain lasts about 40-45 rainy days, but are quite unpredictable. It occurs mainly during Vishu (new year for Kerala) period. The south-west monsoon first starts on the Kerala coast beginning, on average, the first week of June. These monsoons decide the fate of Indian agriculture.


When we say “gamble”, one must ask the critical question: have successive Kerala governments played this gamble well, for the benefit of Kerala farmers, or allowed things to take their own course (the “business as usual” attitude) and leave the rest to the vagaries of the weather? To get an answer to this critical question, we must examine the annual rainfall data in India, in particular, Kerala. Average annual Indian rainfall is 1197 mm. Mawsynram village in East Khasi hills in Meghalaya receives the highest total rainfall: 11872 mm. This is also the highest in the world. Kerala gets a total rainfall 3107 mm, which translates to about 7030 crore cubic metre of water. How has Kerala utilized this enormous quantity of water annually received?


To get an idea, one must examine the rainfall data of Israel, the “desert state” in the Arabian peninsula. Israel gets an average annual rainfall of just 1100 mm, just about one-third of what Kerala gets annually. Look at Israel’s agriculture. The country has literally made the desert bloom. Israelis produce the best oranges in the world (“Jaffa” oranges), the best tomatoes, the tastiest grapes, and grow enough wheat and rice to feed the population. It is 95% self-sufficient in food.  


Look at the situation in Kerala. If the central government had not supplied enough food grains during the COVID-19 pandemic, to last until November 2020, Keralites, especially the poor, would be starving. Tragically, even without a pandemic Kerala does not produce enough rice, though mainly a rice eating State, to feed its people. Kerala produces only about 25% of its rice requirement; the rest is imported from surplus States like Andhra, or even Punjab. The situation is similar with regard to vegetables and fruits, where Kerala depends on neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.



As Chief Minister, V.S. Achuthanandan sent a ministerial team to Israel to study its agricultural patterns and “learn from its success in agriculture”, especially water management.  Nothing has been heard of the outcome. Current Chief Minister Pinayari Vijayan went on a week’s mission to Europe, including The Netherlands, which is famous for its water resources management, to “study the water management” following the second year of devastating floods in Kerala; the outcome is not known. What is even more dismaying, Kerala has an exclusive institute “researching” water management, established under the then chief minister C. Achutha Menon. Its role in Kerala’s water management is also unknown.


Water is at the heart of agriculture and simple water harvesting to harness excess rainfall for the lean summer season could solve the problem of both drinking water and irrigation.  Kerala also needs to manage its scarce soil resources; yet it does not have a viable land use policy. Hence, where paddy should be grown, the farmer grows rubber, and where rubber should be grown, he grows banana. It is totally lop sided. Added to this is the degradation of the scarce soil resources.


The soils of Kuttanad, known as the “rice bowl” Kerala a few decades ago, have been subjected to the unbridled use of chemical fertilizers, especially urea, that has led to the soils turning acidic, with a pH range of 2-3, which destroys native soil fertility. This phenomenon, promoted by the green revolution chemical-based agriculture model, has on an all India basis led to the degradation of 120.40 million hectares (mha) of the 328.73 mha geographical area in India.


There is no precise data about land degradation in Kerala due to the green revolution. But, Kuttanad is the best living example. This writers’ soil management technique, globally known as “The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept”, can help manage soils intelligently without ruining it.


Green revolution and Global warming


As early as 1980, this author had warned that unbridled use of chemical fertilizers, especially urea, to prop up grain yield in rice, wheat, maize etc., will emit a gas, nitrous oxide (N2O), which will lead to global warming by causing ozone depletion in the stratosphere. One pound of N2O warms the atmosphere about 300 times more compared to one pound of CO2. Its potency and long life make N2O a dangerous contributor to climate change. On average 40% of N2O is from agriculture, which can go up to 75% in the US, primarily due to unbridled urea usage. Global warming can be controlled through the intelligent use of “Crop Wild Relatives’’ (See: “Combating Global Warming – The Role of Crop Wild Relatives For Food Security”, K.P. Prabhakaran Nair, Springer Global, 2020).  


Fortunately, the department of agriculture has started to support organic farming. Though this will vastly reduce the use of chemicals, it is important to assure farmers a remunerative price for their organic produce. Kerala must speedily set up farmer cooperatives to procure organic products, district wise, and market them, thus assuring good prices to farmers and giving consumers chemical-free products. This will also eliminate the negative role of middlemen in the price structure and benefit both the producer and consumer.


Suggestions to improve Kerala agriculture


Kerala’s agriculture sector realizes only 50-60% of its potential. Price realization is affected by the Agriculture Produce Marketing Act and greedy middlemen. The proposed Electronic National Agriculture Market (e-NAM) might help. There is urgent need for a common agriculture market for India. Except for a few crops like rice and wheat and a few states like Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh, the selling price for farmers is 15-50% below the minimum support price (MSP).


Most importantly, for Kerala and the rest of India, food processing value addition is less than 10% of the produce price, while it is 100%-300% for most developed economies. For coconut, a very important crop, value addition can be substantially enhanced by production of value added products like coconut chips, bottled Kalparesa, etc., for which the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute, Kasargod, has done remarkable work. Value addition can be done in the case of Black pepper, Cardamom, Cashewnut etc.


Kerala’s agriculture sector employs over 52% of the work force, but contributes less than 15% to the states’ GDP. Incomes have been stagnating over the last decade with the average worker earning less than 60-70% as his counterpart in the city. With labour moving to rural India and following depressed consumer demand, this income could drop by about 10-20%. Kerala’s agriculture sector needs to grow at a minimum of 5% per annum, which is more than double its historical growth rate.


Increasing farm income via the MSP route has its own drawbacks. It could not be ensured beyond Punjab, Haryana, and Andhra Pradesh, and triggered food inflation and macroeconomic instability. Kerala is neither a wheat growing nor high rice growing state. Kerala can increase farm income through increased price stabilization for farmers so they get most of the consumer surplus and use of technology and supply aggregation platforms for storage, logistics and better price discovery. It should exploit the potential to create a segment of processed and branded food, for instance, coconut chips, kalparesa, and coconut oil.



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