Israel is seeking to invest in Indian agriculture, according to this article in the India Times. The two powers signed a bilateral agricultural agreement a couple years ago; in the pact, India agreed to trade information on "genetic resources" from their crops in exchange for Israel’s dryland farming expertise. As part of the agreement, Israel would share its expertise on water recycling and irrigation. It would also help India "intensify" its agricultural production, share greenhouse farming techniques and "livestocks feed, dairy equipment, and technology," according to the article. Israel’s biggest dairy producer, TNUVA, is also interested in India’s dairy industry.

Will this be a good thing for Indian farmers or the environment? I have my doubts.

On one hand, large portions of India’s agriculture sector still rely on fickle monsoon rains, so Israel’s innovations in drip irrigation and other water recycling techniques might reduce the risk of crop failure. But depending on the types of technology we’re talking about, it may or may not be better for the environment. (Some past sub-continental irrigation projects have led to arable land becoming unusable through salinification.)

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What’s more, India has seen a rash of farmer suicides over the past several years, fueled in part by farmers’ inability to pay back crippling loans for Monsanto’s Bt Cotton seed and other modern agriculture accouterments. What spurred these farmers to take on huge debt and to risk everything on an unproven, expensive, biotechnology? Indian farmers were reacting to the opening of India’s market — in order to compete with subsidized grains from the U.S. and other developed countries, they sought to increase yields. To do so, the farmers borrowed from unregulated, usurious moneylenders. A single untimely rain or drought brought with it economic devastation.

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The idea of intensifying India’s dairy production is a whole other story. Currently, India is the world’s largest dairy producer, with the majority of these farmers owning small herds of 2-10 cattle, usually buffalo [PDF]. (As an aside, to see an interesting movie about the formation of a national dairy cooperative in India, check out Manthan.)

Industrial animal production is a well known environmental nightmare; it’s unlikely that intensifed dairy production in India would be better. And industrial animal production might squeeze out all the landless herders who eke out a living from one or two buffalo, since they likely can’t afford the new technologies.

So I’m somewhat skeptical. The environmental impacts are iffy. Ultimately, implementing the new technology — whether it be drip irrigation, modern dairy equipment or greenhousing — will cost money. Without heavy government subsidies and a retooling of the farm-loan infrastructure, it’s not clear that Indian farmers will benefit.

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