’Acquaculture empowers rural economy’ : Dr M Vijay Gupta


Dr M Vijay Gupta, the World Food Prize Laureate, was presented the Nutra Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award, at the 10th Nutra India Summit by noted scientist Dr R A Mashelkar. Dr Gupta’s exceptional achievement of enriching the diets and lives of the world’s most impoverished families through his work in the field of development and dissemination of low-cost techniques for freshwater fish farming was recognised for awarding him the World Food Prize.

As prime architect of a ‘blue revolution’ in Asia and around the globe, Dr Gupta has increased the protein and mineral content in diets of over one million of the world’s most impoverished families. His promotion of aquaculture has contributed to the economic and social empowerment of men and women in poor and rural areas where most lack the means to improve their lives.

Dedicated to improving the world’s fish supply he has built a global network of like-minded scientists, managers, and leaders. The millions whom his work has impacted span continents and range from international experts to landless farmers. His novel techniques increased average annual fish production in India from 0.5 tonnes per hectare in the early 1970s to between 2 to 10 tonnes per hectare. The carp varieties he introduced in Vietnam currently make up 30 to 40% of all freshwater fish production.

A biologist hailing from Bapatla in the then Andhra Pradesh, Dr Gupta began his career in 1962 researching how to bring the benefits of fish production to poor farmers. He was Assistant Director General at World Fish, an international fisheries research institute under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) based at Penang in Malaysia till his retirement. In conversation with NuFFooDS Spectrum Dr Gupta talked about his inspiration to work in the field of fresh water fish farming and expressed his views on issues related to that.

What inspired you to work in the area of fisheries?

I come from coastal Andhra Pradesh. From childhood I had been seeing poor fishermen who were not sure if they and their families would get to eat in the night because it all depended on how much catch they would have. And over the years the fish catches had been declining. Due to this I got interested in looking if science could help them improve their livelihood. And that is how I got interested and joined fisheries research with Indian Council for Agriculture Research.

In those days – 60s and 70s – people were fishing in rivers and sea. So farming of fish was not taken seriously. Slowly there was over exploitation of stock – both inland water – river and also sea. It was realised that we cannot depend on these wild catches, like agriculture we have to go for aquaculture. That is how I moved to fish farming in 1970s. Production at that time was very low.

Normally we carry out research in institutes and then try to take technologies to the farmers. I found it to be a wrong way to do. We need to first understand the potential. We should find out what resources farmers have, what problems they face, what type of technology they have got. We call this the bottom up approach. First find out the problem and then resolve it with the help of research. We started to work with the farming community to understand their conditions. On basis of resources they had and their economic capacity to undertake a technology we undertook research and gave technical inputs to them. This was very successful. Farmers increased their fish production at low cost which resulted in increase in their family nutrition. They could also earn extra income for their other needs. Thus my research is concentrated on starting development of technologies by working closely with the communities, first understanding their social background, economic situations, and cultural aspects, and then developing technologies that are suitable to those communities.

The second area I was looking into was family working. The entire family of five to six persons was dependent on the earnings of one person, the head of the family. But that was not good enough to maintain income growth. So, we thought of making women in the family earning members through fish farming.

Basically you need three days in one cycle of fish farming. When seeds are to be purchased from outside and harvesting fish from a pond may be man’s work. In between, woman or even a child can feed the fish. I am a scientist, a biologist, but we don’t know the socio-economic and cultural aspects of the community in different parts. Some NGOs, working at the grassroot level, are aware of the socio-economic aspects. We joined hands with them and motivated the women and trained them.

The NGOs facilitated loans for them without any collateral. We then transferred the technology which showed good results. This led to women’s empowerment. When one goes to villages and sees villagers smile you know your work has improved their life.

Can you roughly quantify as to how much their income increased by?

It is difficult to give exact figure, but some of the families with whom we worked their household income increased by 75 to 100%. Income of some families increased by even more than 100% because fish farming is profitable.
What are the current challenges and opportunities? In domestic market the demand is slowly increasing. Technology is present. But marketing is a problem. Demand is in one state and production in another state. The cost of production, transportation is increasing. On one hand the government says aquaculture is important from nutrition point of view. But aquaculture is not treated on par with agriculture.

Agriculture income is not taxable but aquaculture income is taxed. Power is given free to agriculture, but power to aquaculture farms is charged at industrial rates and not even at normal rates. In case of agriculture water is taken from irrigation canals while in aquaculture farms’ drain water is used. The aquaculture farmers do not use fresh water from irrigation canals.

Agriculture farmers are given subsidies for fertilisers, but subsidies are not there for aquaculture farming. And when farmers buy fish feed VAT is charged, which is not charged for agriculture livestock feed. If these incentives are given there will be more production. Production cost will come down. For this policy changes are needed. The government has to come with correct policies to encourage fish farming.

Good export market also exists. But in export market we deal with high value species. High value species mean more profit. Also more risk. Disease is a major problem, particularly in shrimps. Awareness of new technologies among small scale farmers is not adequate. We need to provide technical inputs to small scale farmers.

Small farmers will not be able to bargain while buying inputs. Hence cluster formation is required. If 100 to 200 farmers in a given area come together and form a society or a club or an organisation they will be able to access information about technology. They would also be able to bargain when buying inputs on a large scale and better returns on their production. Many of the exported products are coming back due to antibiotics and residue presence. To avoid this technical knowledge and expertise needs to be given to farmers.

What are the challenges on global level?

We have two types of fishing, one is called captured fish, which means fish that is captured in river or sea, and the other is aquaculture or fish farming. At the global level captured fish production has reached 90 million tonnes and due to over exploiting there is no scope for increasing production in coming years. If we are able to maintain production at that level it is still good. That is opportunity for aquaculture to grow.

We must also understand that 90% of global aquaculture production comes from Asia and of that nearly 60% comes from China and we are number two. The global challenges are actually Asian challenges. When you are talking of increasing consumption and production, developed countries can increase production of high values species. But, there is high potential for increasing produc
tion for supply to the global market. Though 60% of global aquaculture production comes from China, it is still net importer of fish because its consumption levels are very high; when it is 8 to 9 kg per capita in India, it is 50 to 60 kg per capita in China. So, there is export potential and not only domestic consumption in Asia.

Is availability of land a constraint for fish farming in India?

That is why we are talking about cage culture. In this system cages can be put in reservoirs and rivers to catch fish. There are new technologies available. Cages can be put even in oceans and marine fish can be grown there. These are new ways we are looking at for expansion.

What are the other new trends available?

New species are there. Earlier farmers used to feed the fish by mixing various components. Now, like livestock, pellet fish with different proteins are available. You select which type of fish you are growing and select the feed accordingly. So intensification starts. It is like not taking generic antibiotic, but taking specific antibiotic.

Like GM crops in agriculture, is there any new technological development in aquaculture? It has not yet taken off. Before going for that there is another stage called selective breeding. That means you are not transferring genes from one organism to another organism, but selecting good growing species. That itself can give 8 to 10% growth in production in each generation.

US has come out with one genetically engineered salmon. They claim that the fish will grow three to four times than normal. But there is opposition to that. We don’t know what impact it will have on natural population and biodiversity once it is released in open and it enters the natural water. I think a day will come when we will have to accept it because land is getting scarce, water is getting scarce and we will not be able to grow more food to cater to the needs of increasing population. Like agriculture, aquaculture will also face similar problem.

What is the initial investment and gestation period?

Once the ponds are ready the first crop could be received in 9 to 12 months. It depends on the technology being used. The initial investment is about `1 lakh per hectare. But that again depends upon the species one wants and production levels one is aiming at.

Will the climate change affect fish farming?

Climate change may not affect in the case of fresh water fish, but it will impact marine side and ocean fishing. For instance, ocean currents will change completely. We have already seen the changes in distribution of species. Earlier, the species we found on east coast are now also seen on the west coast and the other way. These changes are going to take place and it will be unpredictable now.

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