Dr. Norman Borlaug’s dwarf wheat varieties introduced by Agriculture Minister C Subramaniam and propagated by scientists like Dr M S Swaminathan and administrators like B Shivaraman resulted in quantum jumps in the productivity of wheat. It took some years for rice, the staple food for vast numbers of the population, to catch up.
M S Swaminathan who worked for a term as the Director-General of the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, recently presented
Dr Mathew Morrel, the current Director General of IRRI under the auspices of MSSRF. In a comprehensive address, Morrel dealt with issues relating to rice cultivation. He pointed to rice feeding four billion, i.e., 56 per cent of the world population.
Last year global rice production was estimated at 472 million tonnes. Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar are among the large per capita consumers of rice.
Morell provided a fund of information. Rice is grown by 144 million farm families (25 per cent of world farmers), home to 400 million rural poor (40 per cent of world poor), grown over 166 million hectares (10 per cent of global crop land), and consuming 25 million tonnes of fertilizers (15 per cent) and 880 cubic km of irrigation water (35 per cent).
Morell pointed to four drivers of change: population growth, urbanisation, cost and availability of inputs, and climate change.
The massive raise in global population estimated around 10 billion in 2040, will demand an additional 96 million tonnes of rice from the current level of around 480 million tonnes.
Urbanisation is taking place at a rapid rate and is expected to touch 50 per cent by 2020. This has its impact: less traditional farm hands, higher costs of labour and changes in food habits. With the younger population migrating to towns and cities the average age of farm hands, already around 50 in India, would increase further.
Cost and availability of inputs and wages would increase rapidly. Climate change will also have a severe impact on production and productivity.
Just 0.1 ha/person of land
IRRI pointed to the steep drop in the per capita availability of land due to population explosion from a little over 0.3 ha in 1960 in South Asia to just above 0.1 ha per person in 2010. Morell pointed to the concentration of wealth across the globe: the richest one per cent of the global population owning 50 per cent of global wealth.
The IRRI DG provided interesting data on the yield differences across rice producing countries. It varied from a high of 6.9 t/ha in South Korea, 6.8 t/ha in China, 5.9 t/ha in Vietnam to just 3.6 t/ha in India. I pointed to the greater success of crops like potato catching up with global peaks than rice thanks to the induction of science, technology and management practices.
IRRI has done extensive work on building a massive gene bank of over 127,000 accessions of wild rice. However, only five per cent of these have been used for breeding, said Morell. Interestingly, the results of IRRI’s work in countries like Bangladesh seems to be more efficient! This is despite the strong base for rice research in India spread over 60 years.
Agriculture being largely a state subject there has not been much success in uniform development across the states.
Varieties to adopt to climate change
The IRRI DG highlighted the efforts made to develop varieties to deal with climate change: drought tolerance, salt tolerance and flood prone. “Genetically modified rice has also been successfully raised with a higher amount of beta-carotene, high iron and high zinc,” said Morrell.
Corn, a pulse consumed much larger by developed countries, has received massive attention. I have come across farms in mid-west US that produce on an average 10,000 kg per acre making excellent use of science, technology and management. The massive increase in production has also been consumed through a massive expansion in the uses of corn including as fuel for automobiles. Indian planners have been shy to attempt larger growth in grains production on fear of marketing problems. The solution lies in expanding exports from the present level of 10 million tonnes and also to find new processed products.
Dr Morell stressed the urgency to get more from less. These include land and a vast range of inputs including precious water.
The lessons are relevant to Tamil Nadu presently suffering a severe drought. The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University has been researching on drought resistant varieties. Let’s suggest steps to agglomerate small land holdings, permitting leasing through longer terms without alienating ownership, and better extension services offered by the government departments to take the fruits of science from the universities to the farmer.