Our cultural roots extend deep into the soil. What brought us closer to nature — the very substratum of existence, physical, emotional and aesthetic —and allowed us to develop and revel in a synergic relation was agriculture. Agriculture nurtured in us a sense of belonging, and inspired our dreams, art, spiritual quest and existential ecstasy.
It marked the human species’ epochal breakaway from a primitive, animalistic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and the beginning of a long and promising journey towards civilisation. Agriculture was life, and vice versa, for over 12,000 years; till the comforts of technology “redeemed” the young generation from the sweat and mud of farming. Today, youngsters are getting increasingly alienated from and disenchanted with agriculture, globally; and governments and NGOs are trying every trick possible to lure them back into it.
As a species, is it logical for us to disown the very endeavour that made us who we are?
Looking from another angle, the twin curses of our times — burgeoning unemployment and hunger — can be effectively broken by taking to agriculture on a massive level. Global efforts to ensure food security won’t make much headway without engaging the young generation in agriculture as farmers, entrepreneurs and technology developers. Further, growth in agriculture can spawn great opportunities in agribusiness as well.
Sadly, even with the mind-numbing digital advancements, online farming remains a pipedream. If only the youngsters could undertake farming by tapping away on their keypads! Joking apart, engaging the youth in down-to-earth agriculture has assumed critical dimensions and top priority, at the socio-economic and academic levels.
According to the UN World Health Organization, in just two decades from now, 6 out of every 10 people will be city dwellers, and by 2050, this proportion will increase to 7 out of 10. The alarming exodus of an increasing number of young people from rural areas to cities in search of non-farming jobs puts our very existence in peril.
In tandem with global trends, rural-to-urban migration and fast urbanisation are a troubling reality in the Sultanate also, where agriculture formed the backbone of its economy till the discovery of oil in the late 1960s.
While the government continues with its efforts to boost agriculture, the percentage of young Omanis who like to work in the agriculture sector could startle you: it’s just zero! Yes, among the 300 Omanis (aged 16-29) surveyed by Oxford Strategic Consulting in 2015, not a single soul was enthusiastic enough to indicate that he/she would choose agriculture as the preferred sector to work in. The ramifications could only be grave.
That negative mindset must be read against some impressive figures: Oman exported 372,287 tonnes of vegetables and related products worth RO 61.42 million last year as against 282,756 tonnes worth RO 58.47 million in 2015. Oman’s Vision 2020 sets out to boost agriculture’s contribution to its GDP to 3.1 per cent by 2020, at an annual growth rate of 4.5 per cent. Agriculture GDP rose to RO 506 million in 2016 (against total GDP of RO 25.48 billion) from RO 435.20 million in 2015. During 1998-2016, the Sultanate’s agriculture GDP averaged RO 268.01 million.
Also the total cultivated area in the Sultanate has gone up from 173,000 feddan to 202,000 feddan (1 feddan is equivalent to 1.038 acres) during 2012-16, while agriculture production surged from 1.24 million tonne to 1.87 million tonne.
Around 25,600 tonnes of field crops (wheat barley and others) were cultivated on 10,117 feddan last year alone.
Against this backdrop, the crucial question is how to engage the young educated Omanis in agriculture? Experts suggest various solutions including making agriculture a part of school curriculum and linking social media to agriculture. Strategic use of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) in farming can significantly turn around its prospects, they point out.
To inspire new generation to consider agriculture as a career option, schools should offer formal training on scientific farming methods, and highlight the significance of agriculture in national economy along with the huge employment potential it holds.
That there exists a wide global market for the right produce needs to be emphasised.
Policymakers also suggest increased mechanisation in farming, and development of attractive entrepreneurship opportunities and incentives attract youngsters to agriculture. No doubt, the depressing image of agriculture as a back-breaking labour that fails to reward the farmer handsomely, and with little or no prospects for career advancement needs to be worked on.
Reportedly, 77,000 Omanis (less than 4 per cent of the Omani population) work in the country’s agriculture sector across 194,000 farms. The number of young farmers could be marginal. On its part, the government is proactive and freely provides agricultural tools, seeds and booklets to Omani farmers in an effort to boost the sector.
However, if the youth choose to ignore agriculture, the narrative could take a different turn.
T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR