A crisis of farming or of farming families?

Yesterday Bina Agarwal wrote a column in the Indian Express, “Seeds of Discontent” on the continuing agrarian crisis in the country. She mentioned an NSSO survey which showed that 40% of farmers stated not liking farming and added that “Two-thirds cited low profits and one-fifth cited riskiness for disliking farming.”  “Age and gender also affect farmer satisfaction — younger farmers tended to be more dissatisfied, and women farmers more than men, understandably since few women own land and most face difficulties accessing irrigation, credit, inputs and markets.”…

Read more here.



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Small farmer productivity

In an earlier blog, I had tried to examine the claim that productivity of small farmers is higher than large farmers (the so-called “inverse relationship”).  I had presented some studies which seemed to support this claim at an aggregate level but did not account for different crop choices of small and large farmers.

I recently finished reading Nilotpal Kumar’s book “Unravelling Farmer Suicides in India” where he starts by describing in detail the farming practices in the study village, located in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh.

His study shows that on unirrigated land, productivity of groundnut cultivation follows a simple relationship: small farmers have lower productivity than large farmers.  He surmises that this is due to multiple factors (none of which are surprising):

  • “The large and middle farmers are likely to own superior quality dryland plots, draft power and ready capital”
  • No double-cropping in drylands
  • “These advantages afford them greater flexibility in responding to precipitate moisture-related fluctuations, pest-related vulnerabilities, and labour scarcities, as compared to small farmers”
  • Disadvantages of scale in costs of production

In irrigated lands, the relationship is more complex, see table below:  Small farmer productivity - table Nilotpal

Even for irrigated lands, while there is a significant inverse relationship between medium and small farmers, the productivity of larger farmers is much higher than both of these categories.

As Nilotpal Kumar points out himself: “My cost and budget analysis for dry-land groundnut has shown that yields – the value of output per acre – on large farms in NRP are superior to those on small ones.  This finding … casts doubts about the possibility of an ‘inverse relationship between yield per acre and size of holding’ in dry lands. The ‘inverse relationship’ argument has been key to the neo-populist claim that small farms are technically superior to large farms and they are, therefore, amenable to capitalistic growth with the help of a developmental state (like in the case of South Korea/ Taiwan) — something that the Marxists have long disputed.”

Placing this study in the context of other literature, some of which I cited in the previous post leads to a nuanced conclusion:  While in aggregate, productivity (Rs./hectare) of small producers appears to be higher, it is probably largely due to different crop choices, double-cropping and intensive farming practices on irrigated lands.  On drylands, the farmers’ advantages of larger scale, quality of land and greater capital lead to an expected relationship: namely greater productivity of large holdings.

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Footprint of the food we eat

I came across this interesting article on the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of the food we eat, recently published by the World Economic Forum. This is particularly interesting as it focuses on fresh produce, and less on processed foods.

The summary infographic is below. As usual, vegetarians can rejoice in their lower GHG footprint.  But the dairy question remains unanswered.  Cattle have very high footprint, so why is milk shown with low footprint?  This is important to ask because India has the largest number of cattle in the world.





Full link: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/12/your-kitchen-and-the-planet-the-impact-of-our-food-on-the-environment

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X-Ray Vision


A post on a slightly different topic, something which I have been thinking about again, as I’m back in academia…

When I was in 10th, my physics teacher asked in a test, “What would happen if our sun gave off only X-rays instead of visible light? What would we see?”  I wrote, “Humans would probably have evolved to see in x-rays. We would see everything around us in shorter wavelengths, and people as skeletons with shadowy muscles.”  He marked my answer wrong.  What he wanted us to reply was that we won’t be able to see anything since our eyes only see visible light.

Over time I have come to see this small exchange as emblematic of some of the problems of how school subjects are taught.  My response to the x-ray question combined my knowledge of evolution and physics, but was treated as an unacceptable answer in a physics class.

When teachers define learning in narrow ways and require students to see the world through the lens of only one school subject, they fail to help students interpret, understand and explore the world around them.  They fail to inspire.

Another example, which is more embarrassing: When I was around 17-18, one day I looked up in the sky and was shocked to see the moon in daylight.  Throughout my school years I had been taught that the moon comes out at night.  I never questioned the textbooks:  I simply believed what was written in clear black print in the textbooks.

So imagine my shock one day suddenly seeing this anomaly hanging brightly in the sky, defying everything I thought I knew.  Luckily I was studying physics as my undergraduate major and later that day I did various calculations, looked up sunrise and moonrise times in the newspaper (this was pre-internet) and calculated the outcomes of some gedanken (thought) experiments and figured out that, indeed, moon can and is often above the horizon simultaneously with the sun.  Recently, my mother-in-law asked me the same question. She had gone through decades of life with the same belief.  I had to explain the phenomenon to her and convince her that this is completely natural.

This is not a problem just with science teaching. I still distinctly remember another incident:  I was sitting in my high school history class. We were going through a passage on the American civil war.  After having us all read a short paragraph in the textbook the teacher asked us, “What would you have done if you were General Lee?”  I had shifted to a new school and this was one of the first few history classes there. I was so completely surprised by this question, that even now, so many decades later, that scene is crystal clear in my mind.  In my school, history classes were the process of memorizing important dates and lifetimes of emperors and empires.  Memorizing entire passages about the Russian and French revolutions from cyclostyled sheets and regurgitating them whole in exams.  Even though I was good at regurgitating, I never really saw the point of it.  But as I sat through this class on American civil war, I had a life-changing epiphany about the purpose of learning history.  This experience changed my relationship with history:  As I grew into adulthood, I acquired a taste for reading history, so much so, that some of the most enjoyable books I have read have been about history of people, of places and of ideas.

Such encounters with the school education system made me realize the importance of having good teachers who encourage students to think beyond the “text” of the curriculum, to engage with subjects and ideas and not just focus on completing the curriculum in the time available.  It led me to get deeply involved in school education issues in India from a fairly young age. And it led to a lifelong interest in teaching and exploring classroom pedagogy.

Like most people, I’ve had some exceptional teachers and many mediocre ones.  But the strength of the exceptional ones was not necessarily the depth of knowledge of their subject areas, but to inspire students to really think about what we were reading, to reflect upon subjects and topics deeply and to internalize their meanings in our own ways.

My physics mentor used to say that you should be able to explain any physics concept, no matter how complex, to your grandmother.  I took that to heart.  I worked hard at developing an intuitive understanding of physics, something I could articulate in words.  As I was completing my Ph.D. and giving “job talks”, the most common comments I received were about how well I had explained my area of research to people not from my field.  To me, these compliments mattered as much as, perhaps even more than, comments about the importance or quality of my research.

Years later, when I started teaching, my approach was to avoid jargon and focus on the underlying concepts and ideas.  To excite students about the topics I was teaching, whether it was physics, or later in life, business management or, more recently, agricultural livelihoods.  Some students, who view learning a subject as familiarization with disciplinary jargon, find this approach disconcerting.  But I persist because I still agree with my mentor, that if you cannot explain your ideas to your grandmother, perhaps you yourself haven’t really understood them well.

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Solar energy versus water tables

What would you choose: Earn Rs. 93 by selling power to grid or Rs. 250 by selling pumped water to neighboring farms.

“Since May 10 this year, when this solar co-operative began supplying power to the grid, farmers have been switching off their solar power pumps after irrigating their farms. The excess solar power generated by the solar panels at their farms was getting diverted to the grid, thus providing them a supplementary income. However, finding this income too minuscule some of them have started to keep their irrigation pumps working overtime and supply water to farmers who don’t have irrigation facilities. Pravin has been selling water to at least 20 neighbouring farmers using his pumps. “The rate fixed in the power purchase agreement is pretty low. The government should pay us more,” he feels. Ramabhai Chavda, another member of the cooperative, sells water, said a family member.”

““For irrigating one bigha, we need about four hours and 20 units of solar power. If we switch off our irrigation pumps and supply the power to the grid we will earn about Rs 93. However, if we sell the water from our tubewells to the neigbouring farmers, we end up earning Rs 250 for the same four hours,” said Parvin Parmar, a member and secretary of the cooperative.”

Read full article:  Gujarat solar co-operative sells water instead of electricity.


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Overuse of fertilizer and pesticides in India and its impact

India’s uses more fertilizer (kg/ hectare) than the US, something which I have written about previously.

A recent report by the Standing Committee on Agriculture shows heavily skewed (over)use of fertilizers and their impact on quality of soil, water and human health.

Read some of the findings: “42% of India’s districts use 85% of its chemical fertilisers”

Download the full detailed report: Impact of Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides on Agriculture and Allied Sectors in the Country: Standing Committee on Agriculture (2015-2016)


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Do small farmers have higher productivity than large farmers?

It is commonly heard today that small farmers produce most of the world’s food. But how many of us realise that they are doing this with less than a quarter of the world’s farmland, and that even this meagre share is shrinking fast? If small farmers continue to lose the very basis of their existence, the world will lose its capacity to feed itself.

Such claims are made by several reports in recent months [1].  At the core of the argument is the claim that small farmers are more productive than large farmers, i.e. that they produce more food per acre of land than large farmers.

Obviously, the claim raises some questions:  Are small farmers really more productive than larger ones?  Is this true in India or only in other countries? If true, what are the causes of this higher productivity?  Could industrialized farms improve their productivity by copying the mechanisms used by small farmers? Or, must the large farms be turned over to small farmers for this to work?

The India Data

In India, small and marginal farmers are defined as those with less than 2 hectares of land.  In 2002-03, such farmers made up ~80% of all farmers in India and together they owned about 43% of total land in the country [2].  According to an estimate, they operated about 46% of total land and generated about 51% of total agricultural output [3].

Estimates of productivity ratio (output per hectare by value) of small and marginal farmers to that of large farmers range from 1.25x to 2-4x [3, 5].  That is, productivity of small farmers is greater than that of large farmers. In fact finer analysis often shows a inverse relationship of productivity with farm size:  As farm size increases, productivity (output in Rs. per hectare) declines.

This “inverse relationship” is a contested topic with different researchers attributing it to different causes and some even questioning how real it is.  But since this inverse relationship is at the core of recent debates about small vs. large farms, it is useful to examine it closely.

In productivity analysis, output is measured in terms of value of crops not quantity of crops, to make comparison across different crops possible.   Imagine two farms, a small farm and a large farm.  Let’s assume that the large farmer grows a low value crop, while the small farmer grows a high-value crop.  In such a case, the per-hectare (ha) value of small farmer output can be larger than that of the larger farmer.  So the very first question to ask is about differences in crops produced by small vs. large farmers.

  1. Do small farmers grow different crops than large farmers?

It turns out that the answer Small farmers crop choiceis yes.  Many small farmers select crops primarily for subsistence but sell any surplus they have; such farmers often produce millets, rice, vegetables, etc.  Other small farmers focus on growing “high-value crops” such as vegetables and fruits.  (Interestingly, 10-20 years ago, fruits were the exclusive domain of large farmers, but now increasing numbers of small farmers are cultivating fruits).  Larger farmers usually grow cereals, soyabean, sugarcane, and such crops.  The table below shows details for fruits and vegetables; for other data, see the references [6]. Thus the higher productivity of small farmers is not entirely an apples to apples comparison; it almost literally compares apples with, well not quite oranges, but with wheat and rice.

  1. For the same crop, are small farmers more productive?

I couldn’t find enough studies in India so I’m not convinced yet, though I did find one study which supported this conclusion. A primary survey which compared rice yields by farm size in Allahabad revealed that the inverse farm size-productivity relationship holds even for the same crop [4]. The same study also showed that this inverse relationship is not universal: In China, a parallel primary survey showed that rice yield per ha increases with farm size. And in both countries, yields increase with greater mechanization.

  1. Even if small farmer productivity is higher for same crop, what are the causes?

Studies point to various possible reasons for higher productivity, such as greater proportion of irrigated land among small farmers, greater fertilizer use (which is 1.5-4X higher among small farmers), slightly higher adoption of high-yielding varieties by smaller farmers, and greater farming intensity, that is, the number of crops grown per year (15% higher among small farmers) [5].

Several studies also point to greater labour intensity of production.  My own anecdotal discussions with farmers also indicated this: Because small farmers are more desperate to eke out a living from their parcel of land, they (especially the women of the household) invest greater time in caring for their fields compared to large farmers who often take a hands-off approach.

  1. Does this mean that we should hand over the world’s farms to India’s small farmers? 

Well, not quite so fast. For most crops, average productivity of Indian farmers is much lower than (half to a third) that of global averages, often even a quarter of China’s productivity [7].  While this is a comparison of average productivity, it is still indicative of small farmer productivity in India since more than 50% of the country’s output comes from small farmers. Taking all the land in the US and farming it the way Indian small farmers do, would actually decrease global productivity and global food production.  So handing over large farms to small farmers may not be a wise decision.

  1. Beyond productivity: Other problems with small-farmer production approaches

As we saw earlier, small farmers use intensive farming methods such as greater use of fertilizers, water, etc.  So it is possible that on average the techniques used by small farmers may cause worse ecological impact in some aspects than large farmers. In fact, a recent initiative to provide better agricultural information to small farmers saw a reduction in use of such inputs by small farmers.

Secondly, small farms are labour intensive, and leverage free and upaid labour of household members who are underemployed due to lack of other options.  The per capita productivity of small farms is in fact much lower than that of large farms [5]. So, even if productivity gains were real, it may not be ideal to promote more underemployment around the world.

Thirdly, one of the reasons why small farmers work so hard to achieve higher output is because they don’t have an alternative.  Among small farmer households, an average of 5 people depend on 2 acres of land, and there is extreme pressure to extract as much as possible through intensive farming and “free” family labour.  Medium and large owners have the benefit of more land (and greater total income) and therefore don’t need to squeeze out all they can from their land.

The average Indian farming household earns barely Rs. 6400 per month on average (this amount is for the whole household, not per capita). Incomes of smallholder farmers are even lower.  National data shows that farms below 2 hectares (i.e. small and marginal farms) are, on average, unable to meet the basic needs of farming households.  While their per acre output (“revenue”) might be higher their costs are higher due to greater use of inputs and also because they pay more for them per unit because of exploitative market practices.

Thus, idolizing small farms based on a unidimensional view of “productivity” is fallacious (both in terms of data and its implications).  Blindly converting all farms to small farms implicitly implies promoting intensive farming practices borne out of desperation.

6. There are better arguments in favour of supporting small farmers and land reform

The current agricultural production system in India is highly problematic and in dire need of change.  But using fallacious arguments about relative productivity of small farmers to justify change towards more sustainable farming does not serve much purpose and may be counter-productive.  A much stronger argument for supporting small farmers and land reform is also the simplest one:  equity and social justice.


  1. See GRAIN report  and George Monbiot in The Guardian  and response 
  2. 2005. “Situation Assessment of Farmers: Some Aspects of Farming, NSS 59th Round”, New Delhi: Government of India. While more recent data is available on ownership, for consistency with productivity data, we will use the 2002-03 NSS data.  The table below highlights the land ownership changes between 2002-03 and 2012-13 (from NSS 2014 report on 70th Round).

Small and marginal farmers

  1. “Operated” can include land leased-in from other farmers. Source: Dev, S. Mahendra. 2011. “Small Farmers in India: Challenges and Opportunities.”
  2. Wang, Jianying, Kevin Z. Chen, and Sunipa Das Gupta. 2015. “Is small still beautiful? A comparative study of rice farm size and productivity in China and India.” China Agricultural Economic Review 7 (3): 484-509.
  3. Chand, R., P. L. Prasanna, and A. Singh. 2011. “Farm size and productivity: Understanding the strengths of smallholders and improving their livelihoods.” Economic and Political Weekly 46 (26): 5-11.
  4. Birthal, P. S., P. K. Joshi, D. Roy, and A. Thorat. 2013. “Diversification in Indian Agriculture toward High-Value Crops: The Role of Small Farmers.” Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics 61: 61–91.
  5. FAO.org. Accessed 19 October 2015. Datasheet: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xvLORqVm0FFxd-ohF5a65xTQFJlYl3pKrAmQy-3dP-w/edit?usp=sharing
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