Global Farming is the new Mantra

Global farming is the new mantra

By Roopen Roy Jan 06 2015

Tags: Op-ed


TAKE THE PLUNGE: Despite the fact that there are many arguments against genetically modified or GM foods, in achieving a quantum jump in productivity, India will need to grasp the nettle of GM foods

Humankind has been spending billions of dollars on research to find alternative and renewable sources of energy. We have made great strides in this arena. Shale gas and bitumen oil, coal-bed methane and wind power, bio-fuels and solar energy, nuclear power and hydrogen fuel cells are making an impact on the supply side of energy. Because of that and a number of other reasons, oil prices are falling and supplies are rising.

However, are we doing enough to produce more food in an ecologically safe manner? Scientists say that in the next 50 years, we would need to produce more food than we ever did. Former US president George W Bush concluded that the rise in global food prices was due to the economic prosperity of Indians.

To his simple mind, there was a finite quantity of food available on this planet. As Indians grow themselves out of poverty, they consume more food. Hence global demand increases and a new equilibrium is reached with higher food prices. To his credit, he did not suggest that keeping Indians in perpetual poverty was one the ways of keeping world food prices stable. But, not unpredictably, his profound economic observation did not win him many friends in India.

Ironically, despite the advancement of technology, India is still dependant on monsoon. Lack of precipitation (droughts) and excess of it (floods, excess rainfall) cause havoc. Agricultural productivity must be improved in an ecologically sustainable way that is the inescapable conclusion.

Green Revolution was architected by a number of “angels” and a few “demons”. In the Puranas, the sea was churned to yield amrita-the elixir of immortal life. The churning was a bipartisan act of the gods and the demons. Initially, the churn yielded poison, but finally, it produced the elixir.

Green Revolution had several forces at play. It came with the indiscriminate use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers which degraded our soil and had ecological issues. But it was also fuelled by the use of high-yielding varieties of seeds, improved irrigation and water management, mechanisation, multiple cropping, land reforms, introduction of support prices and the provision of agricultural credit in rural areas.

So Green Revolution 2.0 is long overdue. The chief planks of that strategy ought to be higher agricultural productivity and the elimination of food wastage. In achieving a quantum jump in productivity, India will need to grasp the nettle of genetically modified (GM) food. There are three arguments against GM food. The first one is a religious one: man should not try to play god. The second argument is scientific: some GM plants and food can harm nature. The third argument is on principles of fair trade; it is argued the certain evil multinationals use GM seeds and plants to create monopolies which ruin farmers in developing countries.

Turning to the first argument, I would simply like to quote Mahatma Gandhi: “To a man with an empty stomach, food is god”. I do not buy any religious argument that we should not change the status quo. The survival and progress of human civilisation have depended on our ability to change, invent and innovate. For the second argument, I have a lot of time and patience. But I am not in favour of blind rejection. The scientific community must use the same rigour of controlled trials and testing. We do that for newly discovered drugs. We release it for commercial use only when it meets high safety standards. We should do that for GM seeds too. The third argument is a serious one. But it is possible to create a robust regulatory regime that ensures the MNCs are not allowed to exploit farmers of developing nations. India, like China, should expand its own scientific research in a safe GM programme.

The second big leap will be in the area of post-harvest infrastructure including cold chains that will reduce the incidence of food grains, fruits and vegetables rotting and going waste.

But even if countries like India achieve improvement in productivity and the post-harvest infrastructure dramatically, there will still be shortages. We have to think out-of-the box for innovative solutions.

One such solution is to work with countries which have vast tracts of lands but have a dwindling and ageing population. Although this is anecdotal, I remember meeting a gentleman from New Zealand on a 15,000-acre corn farm in Iowa, US. He was brought by the ageing American farm-owning couple to manage their farm. Their only son was a professor in Stanford and did not want to run a farm. I was told that this was the trend.

India could collegially work with countries like Canada, the US, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand to co-own (via joint ventures) large farms. We could co-manage dairy farms, poultry, ranches, agricultural farms and orchards and ship the surplus produce entirely to meet the rising demand for food in India. In a brave new world, there may be more global mobility of labour.

Sri Ramakrishna, the guru of Swami Vivekananda had once said: “Taka mati, mati taka. Money is dirt and dirt is money”. The sermon was meant to turn people away from the lure of money. But mati can also mean soil or land. The landowners read a different meaning into this wise statement. There is big money to be made by investing in land! Mark Twain gave the same advice but with a different outcome in mind, “Buy land, they’re not making it any more.”

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)