The Indian Government recognises agricultural development as a key mechanism of inclusive growth. The goals of agricultural development in India are: growth in productivity and incomes while maintaining food security; sharing growth, with an equity focus on small and marginal farmers, women and populations in eastern India; and maintaining sustainability of agriculture by concentrating on environmental concerns. Overall, agricultural R&D remains a high priority in India, with a strong focus on poverty reduction.
Australia and India share many of the same agricultural and natural resource management problems and research challenges. ACIAR has supported collaborative agricultural research between Australia and India since 1983. The large and well-developed national agricultural research system led by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is a cornerstone of the India program. The research activities have been increasingly linked to the food security problems of other South Asian states, and thus have a growing regional character, including the programs delivered in conjunction with the five IARCs active in the South Asian region.
Based on formal in-country consultations convened in India by ICAR and ACIAR during February 2011, the medium-term strategy for 2011–16 is centred on joint partnerships with increasing co-investment by ICAR and other Indian partners. The India program emphasises collaboration in areas of Australian and Indian research challenge and scientific expertise, in which there is potential for positive impacts at both field and national levels. The consultation confirmed increased emphasis on systems research, seeking synergies from multidisciplinarity within and across the research clusters, as well as a progressive shift in geographical footprint to the eastern states, where deep poverty persists. The medium-term strategy is focused around four clusters:
- Agricultural water management, particularly in rainfed areas
- Sustainable intensification and diversification of conservation agriculture zero-tillage cropping systems
- Faster breeding of improved varieties of wheat and other crops
- Assisting policy development in relation to agricultural adjustment and climate change.
As the current national projects phase down, increasing emphasis will be placed on subregional and regional engagements, noting the common contexts of extensive poverty and climate change, and the common agricultural research issues of agricultural intensification and better resource management. In this connection, trilateral partnerships with Australia, India and other countries (e.g. Nepal, Bangladesh) or regions (e.g. Africa) will be considered. Co-funding of research will remain the norm.
An outline of each of the four research clusters follows.
Land and water resources cluster
The research is focused on water management in the less favourable rainfed areas, in recognition of the fact that these areas were largely bypassed by the green revolution and are relatively poor. The projects are multidisciplinary and based on watershed development at a range of scales, and recognise projections for climate change. The projects’ outputs are directed at influencing both water policy development and the implementation of watershed-based agricultural improvements, or both. The cluster approach has promoted cross-project collaboration, including data sharing. There is a need to consolidate and coordinate the communication of results, especially those with policy significance, to government and other stakeholders. The stakeholder consultation has suggested that there is scope to improve in the following areas:
- Planning of small water-storage structures in rainfed areas, particularly for groundwater recharge
- Technical and institutional solutions for improved use of water in small storages in rainfed areas
- Consolidated and coordinated presentation of policy recommendations from the projects to policymakers
- Exploration on extending the results to eastern India
- Implementation and scaling up of the results of the projects through multidisciplinary teams.
Cropping systems cluster
Food security and poverty reduction, coupled with a threatened resource base for food production (water, soils), remain as common resource and crop management problems for India and Australia. Key initiatives from ICAR include systems research at the Modipuram complex of stations in eastern India, nutrient-based subsidies, and crop residue (including rice straw) management. The ICAR–ACIAR program has supported the development of zero-till rice–wheat cropping systems over nearly two decades, through the development of zero-till wheat systems, innovation with permanent beds and direct-seeded rice, nutrient and water management, pest and weed management, and development of the Happy Seeder—which is capable of zero-till sowing of wheat into 8 tonnes per hectare or more of rice straw, and maintaining or increasing wheat yields. With limited adaptation, the machine will be ready for testing in the eastern Indo-Gangetic Plain and rainfed areas. Consultations with stakeholders in India indicated the following areas of potential focus and research intensification:
- Sustainable intensification with diversification of farming systems
- A farming systems approach orientated to site-specific crop management for system productivity, climate resilience, water-use efficiency and nutrient-use efficiency
- Year-round zero tillage in rice- and wheat-based systems with integrated tillage – water nutrient management practices and carbon sequestration
- Technologies favouring precision agriculture
- Developing and testing of appropriate delivery models in resource-poor and remote areas.
Wheat improvement cluster
The Indo-Australian program on marker-assisted wheat breeding (IAP-MAWB) is a co-funded program working on problems of mutual interest. Marker-assisted selection is the hub or delivery mechanism, and the output is better and faster developed wheat germplasm for farmers. The IAP-MAWB components cover faster breeding, bioinformatics, rust resistance, water-use efficiency through root architecture and crop establishment, waterlogging, micronutrient stresses, sodic soils and end-use processing quality. Since inception in September 2008, there has been excellent progress in all aspects of disciplinary research. The joint program is now underway, using basic data management and electronic field books. Extending these gains in bioinformatics to allele mining and functional genomics will require a longer term commitment by both countries. Future focus areas include:
- Widespread transfer of the abovementioned components to farmers’ fields through elite wheat varieties
- Bioinformatics research, association genetics and cross-prediction
- More wheat traits for conservation agriculture
- Improved human nutrition from wheat
- Marker-assisted selection for Sr26, and other traits such as aluminium and boron tolerance.
Agriculture policy cluster
Past ACIAR research to examine the facilitation of efficient agricultural markets in India assessed competition and regulatory reform requirements and policy options for a new framework. The project components include emerging trends in food value chains, application of policy and infrastructure development. Various options suggested by the consultations include:
- A regulation framework to include a transparent review process and regular monitoring of the farm sector
- Facilitating efficient input and output markets, with necessary targeted assistance and safeguards for vulnerable groups; application of competition law to food chains; and management of the buffer stock
- New farm programs that focus on more-appropriate measures of productivity and market failure issues, studies of markets and policies in the context of changing food consumption and demand, improving rural wholesale markets, and recent innovations such as contract farming and futures markets
- Policies related to climate change.