Agriculture vs technology

Agriculture vs technology
Agriculture vs technology

No country has ever achieved prosperity without engaging with science and technology (S&T). The ascent of the West and its global domination owes much to its prowess in S&T. In Asia, Japan and South Korea and more recently China have taken the highway to prosperity by mastering technology and effectively dealing with complexity. Chinese economist Justin Yufi Lin in his book The Quest for Prosperity has argued that the developing nations can take advantage of their backwardness as “Modern economic growth is, in essence, a process of continuous structural change in technology, industry and socio-economic and political institutions. The advantage of backwardness in industrial upgrading and technological innovation provides developing countries the potential to grow several times faster than the advanced countries”.

The current imbroglio on transgenic crops shows us to be uncomfortable with complex issues and hesitant in using technology to usher in prosperity. The only transgenic crop released in India so far is Bt cotton in 2002. Since 2005, as a result of a PIL filed by NGOs, the matter has been in the Supreme Court with a possible final hearing in April. Unfortunately, the dialogue on transgenic crops, an important technology for crop improvement, is beset with the hyperbole of ideologues from the left and right, and ambivalence on the part of the centrist parties. This is inimical to rural prosperity and India’s economic growth.

The total global human population in 1900 was around 1.6 billion. Today it is 7 billion plus. India alone will have 1.6 billion inhabitants by the middle of this century. What lead to this global population explosion? The answer is modern medicine, which in turn is based on some astounding breakthroughs in S&T — vaccines, antibiotics and other lifesaving drugs, diagnostics and instruments. The advances in medicine are quite obvious to most of us as every human being from birth to death deals with health issues; the question of how this exploding population will be fed is remote, and is hardly given a thought.

In the early 19th century, British political economist Robert Malthus predicted widespread hunger and famines because “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. How did humankind escape the Malthusian trap? The simple answer is through S&T. Two major developments of the 20th century that helped feed the global population can be mentioned as illustrative examples. Around 1914, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed and implemented the process of making inorganic nitrogen fertiliser from steam, methane and air. By some estimates, this saved around 2.7 billion lives.

The pace of breeding crops for higher yields also picked up in the 20th century. The contributions of plant breeding to food production have been chronicled by Noel Kingsbury in his book Hybrid. In the 1960s, when India was facing severe food shortages and famine-like conditions in some parts of the country, dwarf wheat varieties developed by Norman Borlaug at CIMMYT in Mexico with funding from the Ford foundation were introduced in northern India to bring about the Green Revolution. Borlaug is credited with saving around 249 million lives, mainly in South Asia.

It is well known that left-leaning politicians and economists were critical of the introduction of green revolution technologies. It was the political will shown by then Agriculture Minister C. Subramanian and Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri that carried the day for the introduction of new technologies, leading to self-sufficiency in cereal grains.

But the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s has run out of steam. In any case, many of the dry land corps like oilseeds and grain legumes didn’t see significant productivity enhancement. In 2011-12, India imported around Rs 56,000 crore worth of edible oils to meet national requirements. India today requires another green revolution, one based on a low input-high output model, is sustainable and resilient to climate change. The country will have to use the best of science, technology and innovation to meet these.

Unfortunately, the ghosts of the 1960s are back. The use of S&T for agriculture is being held hostage by ideological considerations. The classical left has always opposed capitalist interventions. It opposed the technologies of the 1960s as these were supported by donations from the Ford and the Rockefeller foundations. Today’s technologies are under IPR. The top five global seed companies control 60 per cent of the seed trade. In 2011, private industry in the developed world spent $8.7 billion on crop trait research. The left parties, as a matter of faith, will oppose transgenic crops like Bt cotton. In this, they are allies of the extreme right, which has always been for “swadeshi”.

The worst siege on new technologies has been conducted by the neo-left — an assorted mixture of NGOs backed by evangelical environmentalists from the West. The neo-left wants to take India back to methods of agriculture that existed before 1900. No wonder Borlaug called them eco-terrorists. The neo-left will go to any length, flagging spurious reports, spreading rank falsehoods and using litigation to scuttle the use of new technologies.

Transgenic crops, released after extensive testing, have been grown since early 1990s. In 2012, crops with transgenes were grown in around 170 million hectares of land. Unlike the American continents, some European countries, Japan and South Korea have not allowed transgenic crops to be grown in their territories. However, they are importing huge amounts of grain, edible oils and seed meal that is transgenic for human and livestock consumption.

Despite the lack of any credible evidence on damage to the environment by any transgenic crop released so far, the SC, in response to the PIL filed in 2005, asked for the appointment of a Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) in 2012 to look into the regulatory considerations for transgenic crops and the issue of open field trials leading to environmental harm. The TEC in its interim report has slammed India’s biosafety protocols and competence to carry out biosafety work, and therefore sought a 10 year moratorium on the field testing of transgenic crops, clearly siding with those who are fanning fears on transgenics. If the committee had an open mind, it would have sought improvements rather than bans. If we are ill-equipped to carry out biosafety tests, how are we testing drugs and agrochemicals for biosafety? If our public laboratories are incompetent, why can’t we get biosafety studies conducted outside India?

Due to inadequate investments in agricultural R&D and current ambivalence on transgenic technologies, we are facing a future of agriculture sans technology. Perhaps that is why the planning commission has projected an annual growth rate of only 4 per cent for agriculture in the 12th plan. With effective use of old and new technologies, we could aspire to 7 to 8 per cent annual growth in agriculture and allied areas. However, if bans and moratoriums are placed on testing transgenic crops, no scientist will enter the field and public investments, already abysmally low by international standards, will dry out. It is time government ministries stopped working at cross-purposes and remembered the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru: “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of sanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and traditions. Who indeed can afford to ignore science today?”

Only a visionary political leadership and clever use of S&T can save the country from a bleak future in agriculture.

The writer teaches genetics, researches mustard breeding and is a former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi. Source Indian Express.

Published:  Zarai Media Team

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