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Myth & Reality

Indian society has grown through centuries with an instinctive disposition to question any and every hypothesis. The same Vedas and Upanishads of the Hindu faith have been subjected to vastly differing interpretations from Adi Sankarars Advaitha to Ramanujas Dwaitha or Madhavachariars Vishistadvaitha. Such divergences and arguments are seen across the entire spectrum of Indian life. In most developed countries one finds a thesis countered by an anti-thesis but leading to a synthesis. But in India, such attempts at arriving a synthesis is elusive. This should be evident from the difficulty of major political parties like the Congress and the BJP or the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu attempting a consensus on any issue. Little wonder, the philosophy is: My way, or the highway.

Myth & Reality

Sadly such a divisive approach is also witnessed on vital economic issues that are well-grounded in strong scientific base. The approach to the use of genetically modified technology (GMT) for agriculture exemplifies this.

Food would become scarce...

The need for technology to ensure growth in food production to meet the needs of an increasing population experiencing increased per capita demand for food is of paramount importance. Several estimates point to the mismatch between this demand and the growth in food output: over the next 35 years global population is estimated to grow from the present 700 crore (7 billion) to 900 crore (9 billion). This will demand a doubling of food output. At present rates of growth this appears a pipe dream.

In the 1960s Paul Ehrlich’s best seller, The Population Bomb, predicted that famines, especially in India, would kill millions of people in the next two decades, namely the 1970s and 1980s. This did not come true thanks to the contribution of Dr Norman Borlaug  introducing the hybrid varieties of wheat that contributed to quantum jumps in wheat production in Mexico followed by Pakistan, India and other countries. International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Manila, adopted this technology for rice, the staple food for half of the global population and rice yields also jumped. Thus, the world was saved from a disaster of famines. Global food production was ahead of demand.

Today, this comfort is undergoing severe strain. Growth rates in food production have slowed in most parts, including populous countries like India. Since the 1990s one witnesses a fatigue of the green revolution. For two decades now, policymakers and food scientists have been dreaming about an elusive second green revolution. The first green revolution enabled India to get more out of unit of land. The Indian experience illustrates this: the production of wheat in the 1960s averaged a tonne per hectare. Today, it has increased to close to four tonnes per ha, This means for the current level of production of wheat of around 95 million tonnes, we would have required, on the old levels of productivity, around 96 million ha. But today this is produced over just 25 million ha!

Shrinking land for agriculture…

Look at the limitations of achieving production increases by the expansion of arable land. In its evolution over centuries, production increases were made by bringing new areas of land under cultivation. With increase in demand for other uses, the limitation of expanding land availability is increasingly felt. Data suggests that of the total non-ice land, around 46.5 per cent is not arable. Only 38.6 per cent of such land space is available for cultivation. The balance 14.9 per cent is accounted for urban areas, factories, mining and other infrastructure. There are serious limitations for expanding or even maintaining this 38.6 per cent. (National Geographic, May 2014)

Look at the transformation of land use from Thanjavur to Tiruchi. Over the last four decades substantial portions of this stretch have been taken for housing, setting up universities and other educational institutions, research bodies, industrial units, roads.... reducing sharply land used for agriculture earlier. One can witness this likewise from Chennai city to Chengalpattu. This pressure will be relentless and will further intensify.

The solution, therefore, lies in taking recourse to science, technology and management to increase yields from a given unit of land. This calls for efforts to improve productivity from every system of farming.

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