India and Australia can become the major “food bowls” of the Indian Ocean region, if the two countries can find a way to collaborate in horticulture The region includes some of the world’s fastest growing middle classes, including much of Africa, the Middle East, India and its neighbors and Southeast Asia.
The Indian horticulture sector already faces pressure for change, presenting Australia with a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a collaborative commercial relationship with India.
Pressures for change in India are market driven as the middle class grows, Government driven with a push to bigger farms, mining industry driven as it seeks to play a positive community development role and horticulture industry driven, as farmers want innovation as a pathway to better incomes.
Indian market becoming health conscious
Market driven changes result from a growing middle class anxious about the content, health outcomes and quality of the vegetables and fruits they buy. Plus, a whole range of vegetables labelled as “exotic” in India now face rapidly rising demand – broccoli, cherry tomatoes, capsicums, parsley, celery, cabbages, zucchini and asparagus. Berries are becoming sought after, especially blueberries and strawberries.
Government driven changes are creating one of the biggest historical shifts in rural India – the new Farmer Product Organisations (FPO). The Government has set an aim for 10,000 of these collaborative ventures. An FPO is a grouping of at least 10 and up to 500 farmers into a collective including marketing. The Government will fund these FPO’s and possibly farm subsidies will be distributed via them.
The FPO structure is currently in need of support services to enable them to secure business acumen, market linkages, better insurance terms, quality assessment infrastructure, precision agriculture solutions for better crop management, access to finance, IoT based applications and more.
At the same time India’s agricultural research centres (Central, State and private) are very keen to be part of the solution and become a focus for knowledge and training in horticulture techniques new to India. Their demand for displays and services around hydroponics and protected cropping is very high.
Miner driven changes result from delays and obstruction from farmers, and awareness that by supporting horticulture innovation around mines, they can contribute to increasing the income of farmers and provide new income for rural women – thereby making a contribution to the livelihoods of the communities they operate in.
Indian farmer driven changes follow complaints of declining incomes and knowing they have an inability to meet the needs of the new middle class, at home and in the Indian Ocean region. Women in rural communities are seeking new ways to add income to households.
While farmers are traditionally conservative, there is growing awareness in India of the need for “new skills and innovations for new products”.
India will want collaboration, not high pressure selling
Facing these demands for change, India is not inclined to simply import and adopt western approaches – rather, it seeks to create Indian style innovations with global partners who can adapt to this demand. The Israel and Netherlands governments have established free standing centres of horticulture excellence, with low levels of interest and participation. Australia can move into this space if it is prepared to adapt to what India wants.
What will be needed for these changes? Skills training and train the trainer programs, IT systems, adapted hydroponics and adapted protected cropping systems and products, post-harvest storage and to market systems and a combination of displays and training at Government and private research centres (not free standing).
Protected Cropping (PC) opportunities are huge but need to be tailored for India – including shelter by artificial structures and materials, enabling modified growing conditions and protection from pests and adverse weather. In the mix here are greenhouses and glasshouses, shade houses, screen houses and crop top structures.
Hydroponics and Controlled Environment Horticulture (CEH)
The most modern and sophisticated form of protected cropping have been developed in Australia and we should be able to export this knowledge – might be relevant to corporate farms in India with some key adaptions, creating “modified hydroponics”. CEH combines high technology greenhouses with hydroponic (soil-less) growing systems. CEH makes it possible to consistently and reliably control or manipulate the growing environment and effectively manage nutrition, pests and diseases in crops.
Hydroponics in Australia and the west is crop production using a soilless growing medium with nutrients supplied in a liquid form. The choice of substrate can be varied to suit the crop and climatic requirements. Hydroponic growing also includes growing in a flowing nutrient stream without utilising a solid medium. This is known as nutrient film technique. For India, some adaptation of drip irrigation, soil and non-soil bases leads to “modified hydroponics” and would meet demand over there.
Agricultural research centres in India play a major role in supporting farmer innovation and skills upgrades. There is an opportunity for an Australian Centre of Protected Cropping and Hydroponics to be embedded in at least one of the Indian Government agricultural research centres, another with the State of Tamil Nadu and in a private research centre. These could be supported by a “virtual centre” with farmers accessing it via mobile phones.
This would be a major step forward in building a genuine India-Australia collaboration in horticulture, enhancing the capacity of both countries to become the food bowls of the Indian Ocean.
The “Developing India-Australia Collaboration in Horticulture” research project by Genesis Horticulture Solutions was part funded by the Australia India Council, Australian Government