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Standup, scientists Doubling food Output- 500 MT by 2025 - not just desirable but feasible Myth & Reality
 
Standup, scientists
The technical group appointed by the Supreme Court has recommended the continuation of an indefinite moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops.

Jairam Ramesh, as the then Environment Minister, seemed inclined to clear GM brinjal for cultivation, in 2010. But in the face of opposition from a section of scientists and anti-GM lobbyists, he decided to defer this indefinitely. Three more years have lapsed and now comes the recommendation to continue with the indefinite moratorium.

I am reminded of a classic comment by a senior executive familiar with India at CIF-Alcatel, the French communications giant, in my interactions with him at Paris in 1982: “I find in India, a long time is taken to decide on a project or a proposal. But technology is constantly changing and by that time you decide on a particular technology, vast improvements do take place; there is then the understandable desire to try a new technology. This process contributes to further delay.” I remember his pithy summing up: “one can go on chasing the ideal bride and yet remain a bachelor for his life time.”

 

Without field trials, no claim can be substantiated...

In a recent article in The Hindu, Dr G Padmanabhan, renowned scientist, who headed the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru and an Indian National Science Academy Senior Scientist, writes with anguish and a deep sense of despair: “I am aware that scientists in India having very good leads languishing in the laboratories. Without field trials no claim can be really substantiated. One should talk to these scientists to understand their frustration. The hurdles are so many: funding, activists, loss of trial crops, no publications, no product, and no career.” (Sow the wind, reap a storm, The Hindu, 2 September 2013)

He points to China working with MNCs simultaneously allowing indigenous efforts to develop BT rice. Why are we afraid of collaborations on an equal footing? Are we afraid of MNCs or the technology, asks Padmanabhan.

In the fractured democratic polity of India, it has not been possible to build consensus on any issue. Remember the bitter battle the

UPA I had to fight to liberate nuclear power development from decades of stagnation and apartheid? Or the concerted opposition to Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant by a few activists when it was on the verge of commissioning and delaying it by two more years, even when Tamil Nadu was in the grip of unprecedented power shortage? Or the total opposition to opening up retail trade for foreign investment?

 

Colossal damage...

The most tragic part of this activism is being blind to the colossal damage caused to the country struggling to emerge strong. Look at the poor record of agriculture relating to the potential. Unlike the US, most parts of Europe, China or Japan, India has been well-endowed with large arable land of over 400 million acres and with reasonably adequate water resources.

More important, farming can continue in most of parts of the country round the year, whereas in the mid-west US, the food bowl of that country, just one crop is possible to be raised during April-September. In India productivity levels are abysmally low: corn yields average 800 kg/acre in India against 10,000 kg/acre in the US.

Even while there are widespread concerns over under-nutrition and malnutrition, with the Food Security Bill passed with fanfare that will demand 80 million tonnes of foodgrains, nearly a third of the current levels of production, and agriculture on which still nearly 60 per cent plus of the population depend, has been growing a little over two per cent per annum on an average, just a little higher than the population growth, there is this unconcern to access science, technology and management!

With unrestrained migration to the cities and lack of attention to skills and modernisation, this sector has been experiencing continuous fall in its share in the nation’s GDP. If one looks at taking recourse to technology like GM, to achieve quantum jumps, as has been done by China, lobbying by a small section thwarts such hopes.

 

Prosperity of Gujarat through Bt cotton...

In 2007, when IE was looking closely at the economy of Gujarat, we were struck by the double digit growth recorded by agriculture which ensured the fruits of development also reaching vast rural masses. Chief Minister Narendra Modi commented: “our farmers have taken to Bt cotton and production has been expanding rapidly. We do not have instances of large farmer suicides as in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. There is huge demand for our cotton from China and other countries.”

The switch over to Bt cotton, the product of genetic modification, has helped India transform from a net importer of cotton to a handsome exporter. IE believes in such transformation in a vast range of other agriculture products including foodgrains, fruits and vegetables. This transformation can help India emerge a large exporter of agriculture products. IE estimates the potential for such exports at around $ 100 billion per annum, a third of the present level of exports from the country.

 

Success of China...

The experience of China provides an exemplary instance of the success of such policy changes backed by government support. In less than a decade, China has achieved remarkable transformation of its agriculture widely benefiting from the import of technologies from the US and elsewhere. Dr Padmanabhan points to “China going full steam with almost 6000 PhDs in agri-biotech alone, whereas India has 8900 PhDs in all sciences put together!”

Unlike US, Canada, Australia, Russia or the several other countries in South America which are large producers of agriculture products, India has been endowed with availability of meagre land on per capita basis. There is, therefore, the imperative to get more out of the existing land through improvements in productivity. US and Canada, large producers of agriculture products, have been using GM products for decades. These highly consumerist societies, have not faced any resistance to adopt GM technology. There were also no specific health claims of serious infirmities in the use of GM crops.

A matter for concern and disappointment is that the pro-GM scientists have not raised their voices sufficiently loud. Surprisingly, Indian Science Congress organised annually in early January in which the Prime Minister and other policymakers from Delhi participate, has not bothered to focus on such issues. Scientists like Dr M S Swaminathan who command respect and attention across the globe should provide the lead in building consensus of the scientific community on such issues.

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