India Opening Up to Commercial Greenhouse Farming

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September 7, 2016

greenhouse cultivation

Horticulture production in India has been surpassing the production of food grains for many years. In 2014-15, the total production of horticultural produce was estimated by the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, Ministry of Agriculture to be approximately 281 million tonnes as against 252 million tonnes of food grain production and 275 million tonnes of oilseeds.

Horticulture and floriculture have result in growing foreign earnings, and India’s domestic market is also growing. In fact the demand for many types of vegetables and fruits which are not native to India such as lettuce, broccoli, gherkins, as well as for exotic flowers such as orchids, gerberas, carnations, is soaring. These crops were initially being cultivated only for export, but are now being bought by the urban population within India as well, as a result of growing familiarity with other cultures, and shifts in cuisines and lifestyles.

Many of these crops require specific climatic conditions which are not available in all parts of India, hence, cultivating them in controlled environments is a preferred option. Other than providing them a hospitable environment, the yield of the crop can be significantly better and availability can be all-year round, providing better market prices in the off-season. Greenhouses can be used by farmers for years to grow and sell exotic vegetables and other high-value commodities. Moreover, greenhouses help reduce the expenditure on pesticides by warding off insects and pests, many of which are carriers of viral and other infections. There is, therefore, considerable merit to extending the area under this system of cultivation, for the benefit of both producers and consumers.

While greenhouses have existed for more than one and a half centuries in various parts of the world, in India use of greenhouse technology started only during 1980’s and it was mainly used for research activities. The commercial utilization of greenhouses started from the late-1980s and with the introduction of the Government’s liberalization policies and development initiatives, several businesses were set up as 100 per cent export oriented units. Now many progressive farming organisations and individual farmers are using varied levels of technology in order to control the environment in which agriculture is done.

Although, there is an upfront capital cost involved in the setting up of a greenhouse, the scale of the greenhouse and proper management helps in yielding viable results. Most of the greenhouse projects in India at this point of time are on landholdings of up to 1 acre. However interest is seen to be growing towards projects of larger landholdings. Capital costs per acre range from Rs. 15 lakhs for a basic green house with simple techniques to control temperature and humidity, to Rs. 1.5 crore for automated greenhouses with superior humidity and temperature control, more closely managed water and nutrient dispersal etc.

Protected cultivation is one the important interventions of the National Horticulture Mission. Various patterns of assistance in the form of subsidies (ranging up to 50% of the cost of setting up the structures) have been devised by the government to encourage farmers to engage with this form of cultivation.

To encourage cultivation of vegetables under controlled atmosphere, Punjab government has empanelled five firms to assist farmers to set up polyhouses and polynet houses in their fields. The state government will provide subsidy on the greenhouse structures erected by these firms.
In Khammam, Telangana, the Horticulture Department is readying two poly-house demonstration units to popularise greenhouse technology and help farmers take up cultivation of high yielding vegetables round the year under controlled weather conditions.

Projects have already been taken up in Telangana, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh ranging from feasibility studies of green house facilities and distribution halls for grading, sorting and packing to designing and setting up of green houses for breeding of rice and other crops and cultivation of tomatoes, strawberries, capsicum, cucumbers and lettuce.

For higher end, larger scale farms, Indian growers are also exploring technology from Europe. For instance, the Netherlands is the traditional exporter of greenhouse grown flowers and vegetables all over the world. The Dutch greenhouse industry is one of the most advanced in the world, and has now also become a provider of technology and support for the development of greenhouse cultivation around the world. Advanced technology solutions include climate sensors, air treatment devices, and software support.

However, success doesn’t only depend on equipment. Organisations such as Koppert provide biological solutions for natural pest control, natural pollination and seed treatment, to not only improve the quality and yield of the produce, but also make it safer.

There are many Indian as well as international organisations providing greenhouse solutions ranging from materials, technology and project consultancy. In the coming years it is expected that India’s rich agricultural, horticultural and relatively newer floricultural expertise will get enhanced and further competitive with the adoption of greenhouse cultivation to feed the burgeoning global and domestic demand.

New perspectives needed for food and agricultural growth

Devangshu Dutta

October 25, 2014

These are thoughts shared in an emailed interview with the AgriBusiness and Food Industry magazine (published in the November 2014 issue.)

A Perspective on the Indian market:

Our first word of advice to companies that are looking at India as an evolving and large market, is to acknowledge the fact that that it has very diverse cuisines and food cultures.

Both Indian and international companies wishing to enter this market for the first time need to understand and acknowledge that one-size certainly does not fit everyone.

The variety of finished products needed requires food companies to address smaller quantities and to have flexible production.

Therefore, suppliers of capital equipment and technology also need to be able to think about how they can make their solutions more flexible to adapt to changing market needs, and also to price them appropriately for the Indian market. Simply extending solutions that work in large, developed markets such as Western Europe and North America is not the best approach.

I would use the example of one of our clients, a manufacturer of bakery automation equipment, who have approached the market with an open mind. After initial investigations they have gone back to the drawing board and created production lines that have smaller capacity, can produce multiple products including Indian specialities, and which are techno-commercially more feasible for an Indian customer to adopt.

There is no reason to think that India’s food industry should follow exactly the same development curve as the west. The population is much larger, with significantly lower income, and needs that are far more diverse and changing far more rapidly than in most other economies. The technical and technological models for India need to be strongly focussed on four major attributes:

  • Water efficiency
  • Energy efficiency
  • Flexibility
  • Cost efficiency

Agricultural, horticultural and animal husbandry practices and technologies, as well as those in the downstream sectors such as food processing, need to perhaps even look at setting new benchmarks for accessibility and long-term sustainability.

Food processing and the Indian consumer market:

Food processing has been part of human history since we learned to transform hunted, gathered and farmed raw products into new foods through curing, cooking, culturing etc. This processing has been driven by mainly two major factors: to make the raw material into a product that is more palatable and easily consumed (for example, from raw grains to bread), or to extend the storage life of the raw material (for example, in the form of cheese, pickles, or sweets, or using cooling and freezing).

However, during the last century, processing has been driven mostly by “convenience” by providing partly or fully cooked options, to reduce the time spent by individuals in cooking and to instead apply that time to activities outside home. Social structures in India are changing, as individuals are migrating out of their home-towns to other locations within the country. The number of households is increasing dramatically, while cooking time and cooking skills are both declining. With this, out-of-home consumption as well as partially or fully-cooked packaged foods are bound to rise, leading to greater need of food processing capacities.

Also, with increasing industrialisation of food manufacturing, standards have become important both for efficiency and for safety. We’re seeing signs of such development happening in recent years in India as well – expectations of both consumers as well as regulatory authorities are higher with each passing year. The industry needs to invest proactively in better technology and processes in all areas – cultivation, handling, processing, packaging, storage and transportation – to raise the standards of hygiene, safety, traceability etc.

Food productivity needs urgent attention:

India is among the largest producers of many agricultural products. However, our yields per head of workforce, per animal, per hectare, or per litre of water consumed can be improved significantly. Not only is the population growing, but per capita consumption of most products will rise as the economic situation of each family unit changes. Better practices, technologies and know-how need to be acquired and applied to dramatically improve Indian agricultural productivity.

An interesting model of development to look at is the “golden triangle” approach followed by the Netherlands – active and intensive cooperation between the government, academic institutions and the private sector.

So far, by and large, academic institutions in India have limited themselves to “teaching” and have stayed away from actively collaborating with industry. Academic institutions and the industry typically connect only for the occasional “lecture” by senior individual from industry, or during the time of recruitment of fresh talent. Government largely limits itself to creating macro-level policies. More effective communication and coordination between these three legs could help to dramatically improve the standards in the agricultural and food sector in India and make the nation not just self-sufficient but significantly more competitive in both cost and quality of the final products.

Similarly, active collaboration within the industry itself is important to achieve combined growth, which can only happen if companies step beyond the usual industry association framework.

Local production and service of food processing equipment is an important factor:

In cases where the market is large enough, local production of the equipment should certainly be investigated because it can help to bring down the initial capital cost for customers, and also provide a quicker service and support base.

A first step that a company takes is to create a local presence, either through a distributor or agent, or by directly opening a sales and service office of its own. However, most international companies need to gain a certain degree of confidence in the market, both in terms of sustained demand and in terms of operating conditions, before they would invest in manufacturing in India, since it takes a whole different level of management commitment as well as financial involvement.

With the announcement of the government’s “Make in India” initiative, hopefully more international companies will come forward to take advantage of the changing operating environment in the country.

Feeding the Golden Bird

Devangshu Dutta

March 24, 2011

During its history, the Indian subcontinent has been known as the “Golden Bird” for its natural and manufactured riches. In fact, long before the United States of America, India was the Land of Promise. (The irony, of course, is that Columbus also set foot on North America when he was actually trying to discover an alternative route to India.)

However, in the more recent centuries, India became an exploited golden goose which not only stopped laying golden eggs, but also almost appeared starved at different points in time.

The government’s thrust on infrastructure and industrialisation in the 1950s would have been a great base for economic growth, but the country had to wait another 4 decades to see a true boom, which only happened after the government began stepping back from excessive controls. Similarly, while the Green Revolution took India to self-sufficiency in grain and White Revolution made India the largest producer of milk, we are very far from the place where we can celebrate a boom in agriculture.

If anything, the recent economic boom is much more an urban and upper-income phenomenon, and that is creating some serious socio-economic fault-lines, about which I have expressed concern earlier. The growth of income inequality looks slower in the case of India than in the case of China, but that is only because India still has far too many poor people weighing down the decile averages.

My concern today is of a different nature: about the need to secure food and nutrition supplies for the burgeoning economy.

Over the decades, farm-holdings have steadily fragmented. With shrinking parcels, a farming family finds it increasingly difficult to create enough surplus produce to trade effectively. As farming becomes unattractive, the family looks at alternative, primarily urban opportunities to generate income, reducing the hands available to farm.

At the same time, economic shifts are causing increasing urbanisation, as concrete and glass takes over what used to be active farming land. Large cities such as Delhi (Gurgaon) and Bengaluru are prime examples, but the phenomenon is affecting smaller cities as well.

The demographic dividend to which we should otherwise look forward could, therefore, turn out to be a triple time-bomb, with:

  • reduced land availability for farming
  • a shrinking labour force for farming
  • a booming young population driven to building, manufacturing and service jobs, that needs to be employed and fed as its income goes up

The employment issue needs to be addressed by placing adequate emphasis on manufacturing (especially labour intensive products) and entrepreneurship, but without addressing agriculture, even this growth would unsustainable.

Also, India is at the inflexion point similar to where China was in the 1990s. The increasing income is leading to changes in food consumption. Not only is the overall consumption growing, the diet is broader and more balanced, as people are able to afford a greater variety of food. There is a growing consumption of milk, meat and poultry products, as well as processed foods (per capita of processed foods quadrupled from the late 1980s to the early-2000s). All of these require more inputs (land, feed, water, and fertiliser) per unit of food produced.

We may be tired of hearing this, but Indian farm productivity continues to be among the lowest in the world. For instance, India as the largest milk producing country is still only at about half the level of milk production per head of cattle, when compared to the global best. Similar comparisons can be made across the food supply chain.

There are three legs to create a change: technology, dissemination of information, and market demand.

There is an urgent for technology infusion across the chain, from seed to shelf. Technology doesn’t only mean tinkering with the genetic code (about which there are significant sensitivities). Traditional technologies that are centuries-old can be as effective, sometimes even more so, as technologies that come out of modern labs. If we can avoid taking a “fundamentalist” approach between modern and traditional, we will probably achieve much more, and faster in cultivating and harvesting more efficiently.

Information dissemination is vastly superior today, and with the convergence of internet and mobile technologies, not only is it possible to compile ever more information, but also spread it in regional languages very cost-effectively.

But these two alone will not be quick enough. The last, but possibly the most important leg, is market demand.

For obvious reasons, manufacturers and retailers are focussed on growing their brands, sales and driving per capita consumption. I would argue they also need to look equally critically and perhaps more urgently at the supply chain.

Without seeing the farmer and the processors as true partners in the supply chain, and ensuring them a productive existence, any victory on the market or brand-side will only be hollow.

As customers, retailers and brand manufacturers not only have the weight, but the sophistication to encourage development. Retailers and brands have the power to drive change. They must also assume the responsibility. A few of them have begun showing the way, but need support from many more. Urgently.

Perishable Value Opportunities

Devangshu Dutta

November 30, 2010

This article is based on a presentation at the 2nd International Summit of Processed Food, Agribusiness and Beverages, organised by the Associated Chambers of Commerce (ASSOCHAM) and supported by the Ministry of Food Processing, Government of India. The presentation was made to a mixed audience of retailers, manufacturers, farmers, government functionaries and service providers, and rather than provide answers, the objective was to raise questions that were not being discussed.

The old saying goes: where there are issues, there are opportunities. By that standard, the perishable commodities supply chain offers plenty of issues and, hence, opportunities.

Part of the problem, or opportunity, is that there are so many steps between the farmer and the consumer, so many hands through which the produce passes, especially in the case of India. With every step in this supply chain, there is the potential of waste and deterioration with time, and on the flip side, there is also an opportunity to add value and improve.

Misalignment on Motivation

One core issue, at the heart of most problems with the perishables supply chain, is widely different perspectives and the lack of alignment.

For instance, there is competition at the basic level between cities and villages. But there is even misalignment between the development needs of ever-growing cities that are taking over neighbouring agricultural lands, and the need to feed people living in those very cities. Similarly, the motivations for small sustenance-driven landholders are different from those of the wealthier farmers with large holdings. And, of course, within the supply chain, the tug of war is between consumer vs retailer, retailer vs brand, brand vs producer.

This is but natural in any economy, even more so in India whose rapid growth is widening the already existing gaps and intensifying the inherent disconnects.

Misalignment on Value

However, there is also another significant potential misalignment, of which we need to be keenly aware. This is in the very definition of value.

Given that we have been discussing “value-addition” as a driver for the food supply chain, I think we also need to understand that the word value has various connotations and implications, depending on who we are speaking about. Each throws up different challenges, and needs to be dealt with differently.

In my mind, the three aspects of value related to the food sector are:

  • Calorific
  • Nutritional
  • Economic

The complication is that these three aspects address three very different audiences in society.

For a large part of India’s population, simply providing adequate calories is the main problem. For this chunk of people, not only do we need to have more productive land under use, we need to maximise the output from each piece of land, and ensure that the productive output reaches the population that needs it the most. Within that, there are several social, political, logistical and economic challenges to tackle: clarity of land-holding, availability of arable land to agriculture rather than non-agricultural uses, unit area productivity with efficient use of other resources, safety during transportation and storage, and distribution at prices that are affordable.

Nutritional value is the next step up: packing more nutrients into each gram of produce and delivering the right mix and balance is a critical issue for consumers who get enough calories, but can benefit hugely in physical and mental health through the quality of the nutrition they are taking in.

In pushing up both calorific and nutritional value, we also run into two entirely different debates.

One is whether genetic modification (GM) is desirable. The argument against GM foods is that we shouldn’t tamper with the most basic building blocks of biology, because we don’t understand the implications completely. The powerful argument for GM is that it is a must, to ensure that we have enough and ever-improving food available to a growing population.

The second debate is about organic produce. The organic camp believes strongly that organic is better, nutritionally superior. The other side argues that organic delivers no clear demonstrable increase in either calories or nutrition, and instead pushes production down and prices up: a recipe for complete disaster in a growing country.

But most interesting to me is the fact that in most industry platforms such as this, when we speak of “value-addition”, it is neither calorific nor nutritional value that is being targeted, but only economic value.

Obviously, companies are profit-driven by their very nature, and if calorific or nutritional value does not deliver economic value to them, they will not focus on those aspects. For that reason, most companies engaged in or being encouraged to participate in the food supply chain do so through food processing: the transformation of the basic produce into a manufactured packaged product with higher economic value per gram. A thinking consumer may be tempted to ask, am I getting proportionately better food (especially more nutrition) for the extra unit value that I am paying for orange juice (as compared to oranges), ketchup (as compared to tomatoes) or chips (when compared to potatoes)?

My concern is that such a deep misalignment in the definition of value can cause a huge amount of friction and potential politicisation, especially if only one aspect of “value-addition” is constantly in focus.

Misalignment on Losses

I’d also like to briefly comment on another aspect of value: losses.

We’ve all come across the much-quoted “fact” that in India 30-40% of the agricultural produce is wasted. That’s incredible! A country otherwise so frugal pushes a third of its valuable food into the gutters? Can that really be true?

I have not come across any authoritative study that clearly demonstrates that India actually wastes that much food.

Of course, there is wastage due to improper harvesting, lack of post-harvest processing and gaps in the storage and transportation infrastructure. But that figure, depending on what product and part of country you pick, varies hugely and the overall average is nowhere close to the 30-40% figure.

Overestimating the size of the problem leads to overestimation of the opportunity, and that misdirects investment. I think the correct way to look at the issue is not just in terms of value-lost, but in terms of opportunity lost. There is certainly an opportunity for farmers to grow their incomes by ensuring that better agricultural and post-harvest techniques are followed. If harvesting products at the right time, chilling the produce at the farm immediately, adequate sorting and grading, or even the simple act of washing can lead to higher prices for the farmer, I’m all for it.

The opportunities we are missing may be bigger than the waste that we imagine.

The Drivers of Value

Obviously, the technological, political and business mandate changes dramatically, depending on where we want to focus on building value. Is it to increase, improve, protect or change the produce? Are we going to focus on the seed, on growth, on harvest and post-harvest, on processing, on storage, on packaging or marketing.

Given the diversity of the questions, I think the discussion on value should also include – openly – a widely inclusive group. Obviously large corporate retailers, brands and producers, and the various arms of the government would be part of the discussion, but the table should also have room for farmers of every hue, technology innovators that address not just aggregated large land-holdings but also small farms, and platforms that encourage both ultra-modern and traditional knowledge, both from within India and outside.

By focussing on an over-simplified view of “value-addition”, we risk not addressing fundamental issues. In fact, we could be losing sight of humongous opportunities.

In the food supply chain, we are dealing with a product that is perishable; given our economy’s rapid transformation, the opportunities are perishable, too. We should get cracking.

(To download the PDF of the presentation, please click here.)