Strategy for Agriculture Optional for UPSC

Agriculture, as an optional in the UPSC mains exam, may not be as highly popular as subjects like public administration, geography or political science, but it is considered a safe and scoring optional by many candidates. It is a technical subject, however, and requires prior knowledge or background before you can venture into it as an optional. In fact, many students who take up agriculture for their graduation do so with the IAS exam as their destination. We discuss all this and more about the agriculture optional in this article.

How many take Agriculture optional?

As per the latest available data, 86 candidates had opted for agriculture optional in the 2015 mains exam out of which 11 people cleared the exam. The following table gives the number of candidates who had appeared with this optional and also the success rates of the optional for 10 years from 2005 to 2015.

Agriculture Optional Success Rate

Year No. of candidates appeared No. of candidates cleared Success rate
2017 89 11 12.4
2016 220 41 18.6
2015 86 11 12.8
2014 65 7 10.8
2013 77 7 9.1
2012 122 20 16.4
2011 132 16 12.1
2010 205 3 1.5
2009 180 19 10.6
2008 220 41 18.6
2007 226 15 6.6
2006 180 19 10.6
2005 157 25 15.9

Agriculture Optional Toppers

Name Year Rank
Anoop Shetty 2012 140
Preeti Maithil 2008 92
Yatish V. Deshmukh 2017 159
Pallavi Sarkar 2016 293
Vikrant More 2017 430
Amit Shinde 2017 705

Agriculture Optional Pros and Cons

There are both benefits and drawbacks if you take up agriculture as your optional in the IAS mains exam. The key is to assess your own strengths and weaknesses, understand the demands of the UPSC exam, go through the particular optional subject’s syllabus and past question papers and then come to a decision. To help you in this decision-making, if you have not already decided on an optional, we have come up with the pros and cons of agriculture optional. Go through them and then match your own capabilities before fixing on one subject.

Agriculture Optional Pros

  1. Agriculture has a relatively shorter syllabus and it can be completed within 4 – 5 months if studied with the right approach and dedication.
  2. Apart from students of agriculture, even students of botany can take up this optional if they have an interest in it. Paper II of agriculture has a lot of sync with botany.
  3. Many topics in agriculture has an overlap with the general studies papers, especially in economy and geography. Agriculture and farmer distress being a ‘hot topic’ for newspapers, it can also help you in the essay paper.
  4. Topics in GS III which have a direct overlap with agriculture optional are – Major crops cropping patterns in various parts of the country, different types of irrigation and irrigation systems storage, transport and marketing of agricultural produce and issues and related constraints; e-technology in the aid of farmers. Issues related to direct and indirect farm subsidies and minimum support prices; Public Distribution System objectives, functioning, limitations, revamping; issues of buffer stocks and food security.
  5. The questions asked in this optional are mostly direct and predictable. To understand the pattern and the areas from where most questions are asked, you must go through the previous year UPSC question papers.
  6. The results of this optional has shown good consistency over the years and it is generally a scoring subject.
  7. If you incorporate some current affairs material pertinent to the subject (and which are easily available from the daily newspaper), you can take your score to great heights.

Agriculture Optional Cons

  1. You can take this subject only if you have an interest in reading it (this is true even if agriculture is your graduation or post-graduation subject).
  2. Candidates who hadn’t had biology in their graduation studies are not advised to take agriculture optional.
  3. Overlap of the syllabus with GS is less when compared to subjects like geography, history, pub ad, political science, etc.

Agriculture Optional Syllabus

Let us take a look at the syllabus for agriculture for the UPSC mains exam.

There are two optional papers in the UPSC exam pattern. Both the papers are for a total of 250 marks making the total optional marks to 500.

Download the Agriculture syllabus PDF.

How to prepare for agriculture optional?

In this section, we give you a detailed strategy for agriculture optional for UPSC. Before starting out with the topic-wise strategy for the agriculture papers, let us divide the syllabus neatly into sections. This exercise would make it easy to complete the syllabus and would also make the task look easier and more achievable.

Agriculture Paper I Syllabus Simplified

  • Ecology and its relevance to man
  • Natural resources, their sustainable management and conservation
  • Physical and social environment as factors of crop distribution and production
  • Agro ecology; cropping pattern as indicators of environments
  • Environmental pollution and associated hazards to crops, animals and humans
  • Climate change – International conventions and global initiatives
  • Green house effect and global warming
  • Advance tools for ecosystem analysis – Remote sensing (RS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
  • Cropping patterns in different agro-climatic zones of the country
  • Impact of high yielding and short-duration varieties on shifts in cropping patterns
  • Concepts of various cropping and farming systems.
  • Organic and Precision farming
  • Package of practices for production of important cereals, pulses, oil seeds, fibres, sugar, commercial and fodder crops
Weed science
  • Weeds – characteristics
  • Dissemination and association with various crops; their multiplications
  • Cultural, biological, and chemical control of weeds
  • Important features and scope
  • Various types of forestry plantations such as social forestry, agro-forestry, and natural forests
  • Propagation of forest plants.
  • Forest products. Agro forestry and value addition
  • Conservation of forest flora and fauna
Soil science and nutrient management
  • Soil- physical, chemical and biological properties
  • Processes and factors of soil formation.
  • Soils of India
  • Mineral and organic constituents of soils and their role in maintaining soil productivity.
  • Essential plant nutrients and other beneficial elements in soils and plants.
  • Principles of soil fertility, soil testing and fertilizer recommendations.
  • Integrated nutrient management
  • Biofertilizers
  • Losses of nitrogen in soil, nitrogen-use efficiency in submerged rice soils, nitrogen fixation in soils
  • Efficient phosphorus and potassium use
  • Problem soils and their reclamation.
  • Soil factors affecting greenhouse gas emission
Soil and water conservation
  • Soil conservation
  • Integrated watershed management.
  • Soil erosion and its management. Dry land agriculture and its problems.
  • Technology for stabilizing agriculture production in rain fed areas.
  • Water-use efficiency in relation to crop production
  • Criteria for scheduling irrigations
  • Ways and means of reducing runoff losses of irrigation water.
  • Rainwater harvesting.
  • Drip and sprinkler irrigation.
  • Drainage of waterlogged soils
  • Quality of irrigation water
  • Effect of industrial effluents on soil and water pollution.
  • Irrigation projects in India
Agricultural economics
  • Farm management, scope, importance and characteristics, farm planning.
  • Optimum resource use and budgeting.
  • Economics of different types of farming systems.
  • Marketing management – strategies for development, market intelligence.
  • Price fluctuations and their cost; role of co-operatives in agricultural economy
  • Types and systems of farming and factors affecting them.
  • Agricultural price policy.
  • Crop Insurance
Agricultural extension
  • Agricultural extension, its importance and role
  • Methods of evaluation of extension programmes
  • Socio-economic survey and status of big, small and marginal farmers and landless agricultural labourers.
  • Training programmes for extension workers
  • Role of Krishi Vigyan Kendra’s (KVK) in dissemination of Agricultural technologies.
  • Non Government Organization (NGO) and self-help group approach for rural development.

Agriculture Paper II Syllabus Simplified

Cell biology
  • Cell structure, function and cell cycle.
  • Synthesis, structure and function of genetic material.
  • Laws of heredity.
  • Chromosome structure, chromosomal aberrations
  • Linkage and cross-over, and their significance in recombination breeding.
  • Polyploidy, euploids and aneuploids.
  • Mutations – and their role in crop improvement.
  • Heritability, sterility and incompatibility, classification and their application in crop improvement.
  • Cytoplasmic inheritance, sex-linked, sex-influenced and sex-limited characters
Plant breeding
  • History of plant breeding.
  • Modes of reproduction, selfing and crossing techniques.
  • Origin, evolution and domestication of crop plants, center of origin, law of homologous series, crop genetic resources conservation and utilization.
  • Application of principles of plant breeding, improvement of crop plants.
  • Molecular markers and their application in plant improvement.
  • Pure-line selection, pedigree, mass and recurrent selections, combining ability, its significance in plant breeding.
  • Heterosis and its exploitation.
  • Somatic hybridization.
  • Breeding for disease and pest resistance.
  • Role of interspecific and intergeneric hybridization.
  • Role of genetic engineering and biotechnology in crop improvement.
  • Genetically modified crop plants
Seed production and technology
  • Seed production and processing technologies
  • Seed certification, seed testing and storage.
  • DNA finger printing and seed registration.
  • Role of public and private sectors in seed production and marketing.
  • Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues, WTO issues and its impact on Agriculture.
Plant physiology
  • Principles of Plant Physiology with reference to plant nutrition, absorption, translocation and metabolism of nutrients.
  • Soil – water- plant relationship.
  • Enzymes and plant pigments;
  • Photosynthesis- modern concepts and factors affecting.
  • C3, C4 and CAM mechanisms.
  • Factors affecting aerobic and anaerobic respiration
  • Carbohydrate, Protein and fat metabolism.
  • Growth and development; photoperiodism and vernalilzation.
  • Plant growth substances and their role in crop production.
  • Physiology of seed development and germination; dormancy.
  • Stress physiology – drought, salt and water stress.
Horticulture and landscape gardening
  • Major fruits, plantation crops, vegetables, spices and flower crops
  • Package practices of major horticultural crops.
  • Protected cultivation and high tech horticulture.
  • Post harvest technology and value addition of fruits and vegetables
  • Landscaping and commercial floriculture.
  • Medicinal and aromatic plants.
  • Role of fruits and vegetables in human nutrition.
Plant protection techniques
  • Diagnosis of pests and diseases of field crops, vegetables, orchard and plantation crops and their economic importance.
  • Classification of pests and diseases and their management.
  • Integrated pest and disease management.
  • Storage pests and their management.
  • Biological control of pests and diseases.
  • Epidemiology and forecasting of major crop pests and diseases.
  • Plant quarantine measures.
  • Pesticides, their formulation and modes of action
Food production and nutrition management
  • Food production and consumption trends in India
  • Food security and growing population
  • Reasons for grain surplus.
  • National and international food policies.
  • Production, procurement, distribution constraints.
  • Availability of food grains, per capita expenditure on food. Trends in poverty, Public Distribution System and Below Poverty Line population,
  • Targeted Public Distribution System (PDS), policy implementation in context to globalization.
  • Processing constraints.
  • Relation of food production to National Dietary Guidelines and food consumption pattern.
  • Food based dietary approaches to eliminate hunger.
  • Nutrient deficiency –
    • Micro nutrient deficiency , Protein Energy Malnutrition or Protein Calorie Malnutrition (PEM or PCM),
    • Micro nutrient deficiency and HRD in context of work capacity of women and children.
  • Food grain productivity and food security.

Agriculture Paper I Strategy

  1. Ecology – this is becoming an important section as many questions are being asked from this section for the past 2 – 3 years. Questions are also being asked in the compulsory section. Topics from where questions are repeatedly asked are: environmental pollution, agro-ecosystem and its impact on crop productivity.

    Example question:
  1. Discuss the global initiatives and international conventions on climate change. What does NICRA stand for? What are the initiatives taken by Indian govt. in this regard? (20 marks, 2016)
    Q. How are the agro climatic zones determined? (10 marks, 2015)
  1. Agronomy – from this topic, questions are repeatedly asked from: Cropping patterns in different agro-climatic zones of the country; Impact of high yielding and short-duration varieties on shifts in cropping patterns; and organic and precision farming. For this section, ‘Principles of Agronomy’ by Reddy and Reddy is quite useful.

    Example question:
    Q. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) vs Integrated Nutrient Management (INM) (10 marks, 2016, 2015)


  • Weed science – every year, questions are asked from here. Characteristics of weed, and biological control of weeds are very important topics.

    Example question:
    Q. Explain critical period for crop weed competition with suitable examples. (10 marks, 2016)
    Q. List the factors affecting efficacy of herbicides. (10 marks, 2016)
    Q. Discuss the factors affecting efficacy of herbicides. (20 marks, 2015)


  • Forestry – this section is also assuming more importance in recent years.
  • Soil science and nutrient management – for this section, you can refer to ‘Introductory Soil Science’ by DK Das. Repeated questions are from: nitrogen-use efficiency in submerged rice soils; organic constituents of soil; saline and alkaline soils (problematic soil).

    Example question:
    Q. Discuss nitrogen transformation and its management in submerged soil for rice production. (20 marks, 2015)
    Q. What benefits are derived from organic matter in soil? (10 marks, 2015)


  • Soil and water conservation – this is an easy section. Most of the questions are asked from soil erosion. This section also has an overlap with the GS III paper.

    Example question:
    Q. Describe how irrigation is scheduled in critical stage of crop growth. (10 marks, 2016)
    Q. Write a note on rainwater harvesting and recharge of ground water. (10 marks, 2015)


  • Agriculture economics & agriculture economics – these sections are very important parts in paper I. Here, most of the questions asked are linked to current affairs. This is a very scoring section. The syllabus is quite small for these topics and can be covered in just two days. But, make sure you update yourselves with current data and maps and prepare your notes accordingly. This will fetch you good marks in these questions.

    Example question:
    Q. Importance principles in farm management. (20 marks, 2016)
    Q. Discuss the farm management problems in Indian context. (10 marks, 2015)
    Q. Discuss briefly the challenges in agricultural marketing system. State the advantages of supply chain management. (10 marks, 2013)


Agriculture Paper II Strategy

  1. Cell biology – also called genetics, this section can be easily prepared from your degree notes (if you are an agriculture graduate) or from Tamil Nadu Agriculture notes. Questions asked are pretty straight-forward and every year, at least 50 marks worth of questions are asked. Answers in this section need to be augmented with examples.

    Example question:
    Q. What are the components of DNA and RNA? Give the characteristic difference of the DNA and RNA. (12.5 marks, 2015)
    Q. DNA is the genetic material. How does DNA contribute to the development of various traits? (12.5 marks, 2014)


  • Plant breeding – for this section, you can refer to ‘Plant Breeding Principles and Methods’ by BD Singh or ‘Essentials of Plant Breeding’ by Phundan Singh. In case of different breeding methods, you need to give relevant examples.

    Example question:
    Q. Explain the law of homologous series. How is it helpful in genetic resources, conservation and utilisation? (12.5 marks, 2015)
    Q. What do you mean by genetically modified crop plants? Write its advantages and disadvantages. (12.5 marks, 2015)
  • Plant physiology – questions are asked from this section almost every year. They are generally very easy and static questions which can be tackled easily if you have covered the syllabus thoroughly. However, the questions require really lengthy answers and for this, writing practice is needed. You can refer to ‘Fundamentals of Plant Physiology’ by VK Jain or ‘Plant Physiology’ by Sinha and Pandey. In this section, your answers need to be embellished with technical keywords. You should also draw good diagrams to get more marks.

    Example question:
    Q. What are the essential nutrients required by plants for growth and development. Explain the boron deficiency symptom in Cauliflower and Litchi. (12.5 marks, 2015)
    Q. Define vernalization. How vernalization is activated in plants? Briefly discuss its importance in agriculture. (12.5 marks, 2014)
  • Seed production and technology – this is a very easy section. You need to get relevant current data for this section.

    Example question:
    Q. What are objectives of seed testing? Write the testing procedure adopted in paddy and wheat crops. (10 marks, 2015)


  • Horticulture and landscape gardening – focus on post-harvest technologies and how to prevent post-harvest losses. Fruit crops and flower crops are generally asked in the exam.

    Example question:
    Q. Define cole crops & explain the basis on which they are grouped. (12.5 marks, 2015)
    Q. Define jelly. Explain the principle of jelly formation. Briefly describe the preparation of jelly and enumerate problems in jelly making.  912.5 marks, 2014)


  • Plant protection techniques – focus on broad areas of diseases and not individual diseases and pests. Important topics here are: theoretical part of pathology, IDM (integrated disease management), pest management, biocontrol of diseases and pests and quarantines.

    Example question:
    Q. Write the distribution of mango malformation in India. What are the causes of different malformations? Suggest to combat the malformations. (12.5 marks, 2015)


  • Food production and nutrition management – this is related to the syllabus of GS III. Questions are repeatedly asked from nutrition deficiencies, and protein malnutrition. You have to give correct examples and facts to support your answers. This is a scoring section in the syllabus.

    Example question:
    Q. What do you mean by Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS)? Who are specially focussed group covered under this programme? (10 marks, 2015)
    Q. Explain in brief Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). What measures have been taken to increase transparency in the functioning of TPDS? (12.5 marks, 2014)

Making notes

Making your own notes is important if you want to streamline your preparation. If you cannot make notes for all the topics (which is advisable since all the material is not available in one place), you can still make notes for at least five major topics in this optional. They are:

  1. Genetics
  2. Physiology
  3. Breeding
  4. Agronomy
  5. Soil science

Agriculture Optional Books

  • Principles of Agronomy by Reddy & Reddy
  • Introductory Soil Science by DK Das
  • Plant Breeding Principles and Methods by BD Singh
  • Essentials of Plant Breeding by Phundan Singh
  • Fundamentals of Plant Physiology by VK Jain
  • Plant Physiology by Sinha & Pandey
  • Fundamentals of Genetics by BD Singh
  • Economics of Farm Production and Management by VT Raju & DVS Rao
  • Introduction to Agriculture by AK Vyas
  • Plant pathology by PD Sharma
  • Introduction to Horticulture – N Kumar

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