Biotechnology a must for food security
Liberate science to eliminate hunger, say experts
Emphasising the need for integration of technology and governance in food production, Tariq Anwar, minister of state for agriculture and food processing industries, said that most of the times better technology exists but due to lack of governance we are not able to derive full benefits from it.
“National Institute of Sub-tropical Horticulture has already developed food crops, productivity of which is already manifold of what already exists. What stops us from replicating this on the field?” he remarked. Anwar was speaking at the conference on ‘Future of Food Governance’ organised by Governance Now in association with the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE).
He said there is need for robust regulatory system which would scientifically establish mechanism for evaluation of genetically modified (GM) crops so that all issues on this matter can be put to rest. Dalip Singh, additional secretary, ministry of agriculture, stressed on two factors for ensuring food security: research and development for sustained increase in production and providing benefits of advancement in information and communication technology (ICT) to the agricultural sector and farmers.
Food security needs sustainable food production regime. For that to happen, “we need to focus on climate change, water, crop nutrition, increased production; development of rain-fed areas and capacity building”, he said. Elaborating on ICT initiatives being undertaken by the ministry, he said, “We have come up with a farmer’s portal, which is a one-stop shop for farmers for all their requirements relating to agriculture and allied sectors. The portal has been developed by National Informatics Centre.” To reach out to farmers, the ministry also started an SMS portal two years back. So far 20 crore messages have been sent out to farmers by various organisations, he said. Around 2 crore farmers have registered for this service. Stressing on the need for GM crops for ensuring food security, RB Singh, president, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), quoted prime minister Manmohan Singh as saying that, “Complex issues, including GM food or nuclear energy or exploration of outer space, can’t be settled by faith and emotions but by structured debates and analyses.” He indicated that science should be liberated so that hunger is eliminated. According to an estimate, 700 million Indians will live in villages by 2051 and will depend on agriculture. “How will you sustain? Production has to be enhanced for this. We need to increase productivity by four-fold, water by three-fold, efficient utilisation of energy by two-fold, reduce carbon emission by six-fold and increase labour efficiency by six-fold,” Singh said. “In the given backdrop, we cannot say no to biotechnology.” Deepak Pental, former vice-chancellor of Delhi University and professor of genetics, focused on how other nations are reaching prosperity, whereas India is still behind.
He said, “While India will outstrip China in population soon, it only produces 27 million fresh vegetables compared to 158 million by China. Obviously we are doing something wrong somewhere. And we can do much better than what we are doing.” Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj and a farmer himself, said that food is not a priority as far as governments are concerned. He said it is strange to see that vegetables have become costlier than fruits in the last few years. “Till food is subsidised, demand for technology is not going to come.” Emphasising on farmers’ prosperity, he said, “We make regulations but we do not enforce them. Just a legislation on paper is not enough, we need better governance.”
Giving an example of Pakistan, Jakhar said, “There, the cost of urea is four times than ours; they do not get any subsidy nor do they get any free electricity. Still their pesticide consumption is half than ours.” Prof N Chandrashekhara Rao of the Institute of Economic Growth focused on policy framework in different countries. He said that agricultural technology has both direct and indirect impact. “The direct effect is through impacting the welfare of adopting farmers through changes in costs, returns and profits. And indirect effect is on the price of food,” he observed. “Fears were expressed at the time of launch of Bt Cotton (but) now its success speaks for itself. To meet increasing demand, there is a need to embrace biotechnology,” ABLE-AG executive director Nadoor Seetharama said.
Dr SR Rao, advisor, department of biotechnology, ministry of science and technology, said, “Indian agriculture is one of the most regulated sectors. It is covered under seven ministries, falls in the state list and is supervised by several legislations and commissions.” He also said farmers are not free in this regulatory regime.
According to Rao, while technology intervention is important, it is also vital to increase capacity for absorption of new technology. Sanjeev Gupta, joint secretary, ministry of agriculture, delivered a presentation on ‘ATMA and ICT – a panacea for agricultural extension’. He said the Agricultural Technology Management Agency, which was aimed at strengthening extension and technology, was test-piloted in 2002 and was later scaled to 252 districts in the 10th plan.
“The restructuring and re-strengthening of extension should be a judicious mix of extensive physical outreach, interactive methods, regular capacity building, institution building, effective regulatory mechanism and innovative and extensive use of technology,” he added.
Dr JS Sandhu, agricultural commissioner, said, “There has been no expansion of the crop area since 1975. Under the National Food Security Mission, we have given technology as a package to farmers. But what is more important is how we can enable farmers to accept this technology.”