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Helping Indian smallholders tackle food loss

by Lino Dias

With nearly 500 Better Life Farming centers set up in India by the end of 2020, many more smallholder farmers will be empowered to improve food security in India – not least thanks to new hybrid tomato varieties displaying much longer post-harvest freshness. This will help tackle the serious problem of food loss during transportation.

Dr. Lino Miguel Dias,

Bayer Vice President of Smallholder Farming

Since India’s first Better Life Farming (BLF) center was inaugurated in Uttar Pradesh in 2018, these centers have been giving smallholder farmers access to state-of-the-art agri-inputs, farming advisory and training on good agricultural practices. Each center caters for up to 500 smallholder farmers in five or six neighboring villages. In July 2020, India’s 100th BLF center was opened in the Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. It is run by a young, 34-years-old agri-entrepreneur Yadavendra Pratap, who has a Master’s degree in social work and a diploma in mass communication.

“I belong to Khairwa village in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. In my village, farming is the only source of income and the way of life we have been used to since generations of farming families. I want to transform farming in my village and make it an attractive occupation that is also remunerative. It is my dream and vision to get more and more young people and the next generation to pursue farming and make a successful living out of it. My association with Better Life Farming is helping me shape my dream and make an impact to the rural farming community in and around my village,” says Yadavendra Pratap.

In September 2020 it was Uttar Pradesh's turn to celebrate the state's 100th BLF center, one month later, Jharkand inaugurated in 50th center. By the end of the year, a total of 450 BLF centers were set up in India alone.

Starting from Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, the network of Better Life Farming Centers has expanded into the Indian states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. “Empowering smallholder farmers is crucial for India’s food security. The Better Life Farming initiative has helped smallholder farmers enhance crop yields and earn sustainable incomes. By 2025, we aim to empower 5,000 rural agri-entrepreneurs to serve 2.5 million smallholder farmers in India,” says D. Narain, CEO & Managing Director of Bayer Crop Science Limited in India, and Global Sponsor for Bayer’s Smallholder Farming initiatives. “In terms of support to Indian agriculture, we are looking at three focus areas: improving farm incomes, supporting rural agri-entrepreneurship and enhancing the rural economy.”

A third of food produced worldwide is lost along the food chain. India is one of the world’s leading food producers – and unfortunately, one of the biggest food losers as well. Estimates point to 20 to 50% of food produced in India being lost post-harvest. The lack of a functioning cold chain is one factor. The vast majority of the well over 100 million tonnes of perishable food produced in India is transported in unrefrigerated vehicles – in a hot climate. Smallholder farmers often consolidate their daily harvests to make up larger, and cheaper, loads for transportation. As a result, the typical three-day refrigerated journey from harvest to supermarket in Spain, for example, can easily be a seven-day unrefrigerated journey in India. One vital way of improving India’s food security is therefore to reduce the amount of food lost along the food chain.

Bayer’s Vegetable Seeds portfolio aims to provide farmers with seed varieties that help minimize food loss at both the pre-harvest and post-harvest stages. In addition, they deliver high yields and better per acre productivity thus helping farmers enhance their overall farm profitabilityVK Kishore

Tomatoes constitute an integral part of Indian cuisine and are an essential ingredient in every Indian household. Around 1 million hectares of land is used for growing tomatoes in India, such as the Abilash variety, which is known for their strong plant producing uniform, deep red fruits in the best marketable fruit quality. But healthy plants and good yield are only one part of the story: As much as 40% all tomatoes grown in India are lost before they reach small market stalls or supermarket shelves. This is a significant loss not just of nutritional food but also of income for smallholder farmers. Curbing such food loss is especially crucial for India to feed its growing population of 1.3 billion and at the same time solving the twin issues of hunger and malnutrition.

Determined to tackle this problem, Bayer’s team of scientists and breeders identified two key factors: shelf life and firmness. Two years of studying more than 500 tomato genotypes to evaluate their traits and suitability for transportation led to the development and commercialization of four new tomato hybrids: Virang, Ansal, Aryaman and Kaushal. The new hybrids have a 12-to-14-day shelf life compared to the typical 5-to-7-day timeframe of conventional varieties. Virang, for example, comes with a firm fruit and an attractive red color which consumers love, while Ansal has greater adaptability for cultivation in the hot summer months and delivers superior yield and productivity over competitor varieties. Aryaman delivers superior fruit quality and enhanced disease resistance to the tomato yellow leaf curl virus; Kaushal protects farmers’ yields from the soil-borne bacterial wilt disease.

These new tomato varieties will help smallholder farmers achieve better productivity and enable beter farm profitability and incomes as their produce will reach the market in a healthier condition. But how will smallholder farmers actually learn about the new hybrid varieties? And how will they find the right price for their produce and the right buyers?

Here, the BLF center plays a vital role. The local agri-entrepreneurs enable technology transfer to smallholder farmers seeking high-quality seeds and provide crop advisory to grow tomatoes more profitably. The centers also support aggregation & sale of the tomatoes produce and operate Better Life farms to train tomato farmers on good agricultural practices. In this way, the BLF centers are not only providing the right market linkages, they are also helping improve farmer profitability, tackling food losses and contributing towards improving food security in India.

Further, the centers are aiding job creation and provide meaningful employment opportunities for local youth. One of the key objectives for Bayer is integrating women smallholders into mainstream farming, by economically and socially empowering them as farmers and entrepreneurs running their own BLF centers. BLF agri-entrepreneur Ranju Singh from Chatra district in Jharkhand, exemplifies what the expanding BLF center network means for her at a local, individual level: “I always dreamt of opening an agri-inputs shop, through which I could help farmers on a large scale. Earlier, I worked as a small, seasonal seller of seeds without any shop and had to travel from village to village to sell seeds to farmers. Today, I run my own BLF center and with better guidance and training, I am supporting farmers not just in my village but from nearly six neighboring villages.”

2021 International Year of Fruits & Vegetables

By declaring 2021 the International Year of Fruits & Vegetables, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly wants to raise awareness of the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, promote healthier diets, integrate smallholders into local, regional and global production and supply chains, and strengthen the capacity of all countries to adopt innovative approaches and technology to reduce loss and waste in fruit and vegetables. The expansion of the BLF network in India and Bangladesh and new hybrid tomato varieties that help to reduce food loss are two developments that are perfectly aligned with these UN priorities.