Holland Making Its Mark In Agribusiness
This essay is based on my recent visit to Holland with the Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar for the India Netherlands joint working group on agriculture. It is different from the conventional format of my column. Rather than a descriptive account of the places visited, and the salient features of the agreement, this essay is going to focus on the important learning lessons that one can draw from a country that has made a mark for itself in the world of agribusiness, and cutting-edge technologies in tissue culture, biotechnology, floriculture and dairying sectors, among others.
First things first. The Dutch government has a rather limited role in making Netherlands the número uno centre for agriculture and agribusiness. The credit goes to the farmers co-operatives, including the Rabo Bank, and the Wagenengien University for having developed the core competencies in their respective domains, evolved open and transparent systems, followed the rule of law, and having a clear understanding with the different tiers of their government about what can be done.
As agribusiness evolves, the agriculture and economic affairs department have merged into a single ministry, along with the department of innovation so that an integrated and holistic view on the entire economic scenario can be taken. Thus one found that as against ten to twelve departments across four ministries and a host of institutions, there was one nodal point where decisions which had cross cutting impacts could be taken.
And in any case, agriculture in the next few decades is not going to be a function of the field and the farmer. The major challenges will come from climate change, growing urbanisation, rising labour costs, consumer preferences, regulatory regimes, logistics and global sourcing and production. We really have a long way to go, for we are continuing with an institutional mechanism that suited us when the extension worker could disseminate information about production and planting techniques for a lifetime after a few refresher courses.
The system worked well for the Green Revolution, and we can also flog it to meet production targets for cereals, but it cannot help India take on the challenges of emerging as a global superpower in agriculture, of becoming the global agriculture production hub, or of ensuring that the gains of production and productivity on fields is not lost because of poor post-harvest management, non-transparent trading and arbitrary exit policies. It is also remarkable to note that rather than a plethora of schemes and missions, there is just one major concession for the agriculture sector. As against a general VAT of 21 per cent on the general sectors of economy, the tax regime for agriculture is 6 per cent, and that is fair incentive for their economy to invest in the sector.
As mentioned earlier, the Wagenengien University has played a leading role in the transformation of the agriculture and agribusiness of Netherlands. Over the years, the research in the university is being funded by the corporate sector, which is also setting the agenda. The university does perform sovereign’ functions—it is the main referral laboratory for food standards, and also carries out the mandates entrusted to it by the European Union. Several universities and National Institutes like the National Institute of Food Processing Technology Management (NIFTEM) have collaboration agreements with them. However this is not. What I wish to comment on. There are several good collaborations that our institutions have with global partners.
What set me thinking was the diversity and eclectic profile of the faculty, students and the subjects that were being taught, researched and published. Here we are, trying to create separate universities for horticulture, veterinary sciences, fisheries, and there we find that rather than have a narrow focus, the university is trying to expand its gamut. Why are we creating new institutions at the drop of a hat, while letting all the established ones flounder? Why have we not been able to stop in breeding in our own state agriculture universities. Some of the leading agricultural universities—Punjab, Pantnagar, Hissar, Coimbatore, Kalyani, all of whom had the potential of being world-class institutions—are stuck with faculty and students from a very narrow catchment area, with the result that neither the subjects for research, nor the academic rigour which is required for cutting-edge research is very likely to be possible.
In fact, the question should be deeper? Why should there be exclusive universities for agriculture only? These universities have to be encouraged to transform themselves into general universities, and should open up faculties and ensure that at least half the doctoral candidates and faculty members are not from the same university. Cornell started as a land grant university. Today, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell is just one of the many constituent colleges. It retains its global position, but has certainly benefited from Cornell’s reputation for its Medical School, Economics Faculty, Biotechnology Centre and the Management School. The Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Art Museum, along with the chimes makes it a hub for cultural interaction and exchange among students.
As an Ivy League university, it attracts not just the best students interested in agriculture; it also gives them an exposure that is parallel to none. One must remember that learning does not happen in the classroom alone. Students learn from each other in the dining halls, public transport, open lectures and student activities. As we are currently in the throes of a debate on our education systems as well, I thought these comments will be in order.
Next week, I will take up the Dutch auction centres, which are a fine example of how hundreds of transactions can be made in a transparent manner, and with the best deals to the farmers, and the big debate in Europe on GMO foods.
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)