Perhaps the most exciting thing happening in the Indian economy today is a reimagining of its agriculture. For years I have wondered why, at a time when there is so much conversation about enterprise and start-ups, there isn’t enough chatter about how some of the most exciting enterprises and brands, in fact, could be born out of Indian agriculture. But that has finally started to happen.
Two pieces of news triggered this essay. First, Minister of Textiles Smriti Irani launched Kasturi, India’s first cotton brand, and announced that a certification process for Indian organic produce was on its way, and second, farmers in Lahaul valley of Himachal Pradesh started cultivating asafoetida (colloquially known as hing). This condiment is popular across myriad Indian kitchens and yet is almost entirely imported—around 1,200 tonnes of it—from Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan at a cost of around $100 million.
The story in organic cotton is even more interesting. According to research conducted by the global not-for-profit Textile Exchange that was published in their Organic Cotton Market Report 2020, India fuelled the global growth in organic cotton in 2018/19. The report notes, “India was by far the biggest contributor to global growth this year, adding 37,138 MT [million tonnes] to the global total.” India, the report noted, also had the highest amount of land ‘in-conversion’ to cultivating organic cotton in the world, of 23,251 ha [hectares], or a little less than half of the global total. According to data from the our government, India is the second largest cotton producer and the largest consumer of cotton in the world. India produces about six million tonnes of cotton every year, which is about 23% of the world cotton. It also produces about 51% of the total organic cotton in the world.
So what were the missing links? Two things that are the highlights of the Kasturi and the asafoetida cases—superior branding and certification, highlighting world-beating quality, and connection to scientific innovation. For instance, the asafoetida cultivation started primarily because of untiring efforts from a research institution, the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology at Palampur.
Giving Indian farm produce the confidence of world-class certification and branding, and bringing to it the kind of innovation and scientific research-connected-to-markets that usually only manufacturing and tech products receive, is what our country’s agriculture needs to convert it into a demand-driven high-end sales and exports powerhouse.
There are two aspects to this. First, customers must demand local produce not merely since they are local (which in itself is not a bad reason at all) but because they are unquestionably of a superior quality. The same reason, for instance, that Indian customers (and international customers) would go looking for a handmade pashmina shawl rather than its Scottish counterpart. Not that Scottish woollen products are not exquisite, but just that a pashmina is a pashmina, conversation over.
This demand must first be created at home before it seeps through the world, for which culture has ever won the world before winning (at least some of) the neighbourhood?
There is also the question of ascertaining quality. India is fertile ground, for instance, for being one of the world’s biggest suppliers of organic material (from food to fabric) at a time, during and after the pandemic, when demand for organic goods is soaring in every part of the globe. But organic produce needs certification, it needs authentication, and the more steadfast the certification, the higher could be its value in the world markets.
Deeper connectivity of agriculture research centres and laboratories to farms would help in reinvigorating the kind of innovative practice that the asafoetida case demonstrates. It would engender a new wave of collaboration that stretches from the laboratory to the field and finally to the plate of the customer.
The marrying of branding, certification and research to agriculture in a more intrinsic way is fragrant with Gandhian idealism. It is the bedrock of Mahatma Gandhi’s dream that villages are not merely social clusters but self-sustaining economic engines that hub with the rhythm of a natural, poetic sustainability that places man and man’s needs within—and not in opposition to—the cycle of life.
Gandhi would have cheered greater innovation in agriculture, which can only mean more prosperity in farming communities and the bridging of the futile urban-rural divide. The appreciation of what Indian farms have to offer to the world must begin at home, but it must also swiftly spread around the globe.
There can be no greater tribute to Gandhi than the celebration of India’s farm produce, engaged as he was through his lifetime, both in the active rejoicing of handmade fabric and the pleasures of unadulterated farm food. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agricultural thrust would please him.
Vice President & Head of Research, Invest India, GoI’s national investment promotion agency