THE SUN is the source of energy in the food we eat. But plants convert just 2 percent of the sun’s energy through photosynthesis. Energy derived from animal protein is a further fraction of that as only 5-15 percent of plant energy gets converted into beef or chicken.
Between 1950 and 1984, the Green Revolution increased global grain production by 250 percent without expanding the extent of cropland or converting extra energy from sunlight. It drew the additional energy from fossil fuels that produced fertilisers and pesticides, and powered pumps for irrigation. In four decades following the mid-1940s, energy demand in agriculture increased by 400 percent.
The trend continues. Increasing energy input has not significantly increased agro-productivity since the 1990s, but we keep investing more and more in energy just to maintain the current productivity level. On one hand, the result is soil degradation, depletion of the groundwater table and environmental damage due to rampant use of chemicals. on the other, the cost is becoming prohibitive as fossil fuel production struggles to match the growing demand.
Yet, the extent of land under modern farming methods is likely to increase by 12.5 percent in the next three decades and the annual demand for fertiliser is estimated to increase by 25 percent by 2030. Borewells will also dig deeper, requiring more fossil fuel to suck up water.
The energy-guzzling food processing industry is flourishing fast too. the energy spent in making a burger is three to eight times the calories it contains because most components are processed remotely, then chilled/frozen for transportation and thawed subsequently. Storage too consumes massive power as it involves drying of food. the net result is far higher consumption of energy than delivered in the food we eat.
India is no exception. our pesticide use remains unregulated while demand for fertilisers has been growing rapidly. About 70 percent of India’s electricity is carbonbased and nearly a quarter of it is used in agriculture to run pumps that are largely energy-inefficient.
Since the 1970s, our free power policy has driven electric utilities and state governments into financial crisis and many states, such as Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, are spending more on agricultural power subsidy than on health or education. the result is over-extraction of groundwater, leading to depletion of aquifers, and soil degradation.
At the same time, the subsidy burden has affected the quality of power supply. In 2008-09, the estimated electricity subsidy to agriculture in India (at current prices) was Rs 29,665 crore, which represents an increase of more than 80 times over the 1980-81 figures. As supply tripped, frequent and long power cuts and low voltage have pushed lakhs of farmers to depend on subsidised diesel.
TEHELKA reports from Punjab where pesticide use is the highest in the country and massive fleets of tractors and rows of submersible pumps run on diesel. We also bring you the story of a happy turnaround from Rajasthan where solar drip irrigation is saving energy, water and money.