Agriculture and Food security


I am happy to be here today at the first International Congress on Agronomy, Environment and Food Security. We are on the threshold of a new century and a new millennium. 1998 marks the bicentenary of the publication of Thomas Malthus's famous essay dealing with the relationship between population growth and food supply. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the "green revolution" in India.

Thomas Malthus's apprehensions were expressed at a time when the entire global population was less than that of India's current population. At the threshold of the 21st Century with the world population at 6.5 billion we can derive satisfaction that the crisis predicted by Malthus has been averted.

However, there is no room for complacency. There are now more than 800 million people in the world, majority of them in developing countries, suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that the world would have to produce 75% more food over the next three decades to feed a world population of 9.5 billion. Without such stupendous food production we may face, in the words of the World Watch Institute, "a global famine within the next 20 years". As far as India is concerned our farmers supported by scientists and policy-makers have been able to keep the rate of growth of food production above population growth during the last two decades. However, crop yields are tending to stagnate leading to what is often being referred to as "the fatigue of the green revolution".

In global terms, we now have nearly 16% of the human population and over 15% of the farm animal population. In contrast, we have only 2% of the world's arable land, 1% of rainfall and 1% of forests. Our human population is still growing at about 2 per cent per year. How are we going to meet the challenge posed by these statistics?

It is obvious we have to produce more, but produce it differently. The earlier methods of agricultural intensification involving the use of large quantities of mineral fertilisers and chemical pesticides are invariably associated with negative impacts on ecology and human health. Norman Borlaugh has observed that "agricultural chemicals and fertilisers, like medicine, should be used with proper caution". In fact as early 1947 Mahatma Gandhi had prophetically written, "What shall I say to the scientists? Are they giving their attention to growing more food? And this not with aid of artificial fertilisers but through proper methods of tillage and by use of organic manure."

There is also need for looking at agricultural problems in a decentralised as well as holistic manner. I have recently been to Assam. It is clear that in the flood prone areas of Assam and Eastern India, we have to introduce new approaches to the breeding and feeding of crop plants.

Similarly, the rainfed dry farming regions of our country need integrated attention from agricultural scientists and administrators. The available research results indicate that a doubling of the yield of crops in dry farming regions is possible, if all farming families in a watershed cooperate in harvesting rain water and using it in an efficient manner. The "Pulses Villages" established in the dry farming areas of Tamil Nadu by the JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, which I inaugurated a few months ago, illustrate how both yields and income can be enhanced under conditions of low rainfall. Such land and water use patterns will also help to increase the production of much needed pulses and oilseeds.

The challenges confronting our farmers and scientists are indeed great but so are the opportunities. It is in this context that I would like to suggest that at this Conference you may examine the uncommon opportunities which the ongoing gene, information and ecotechnology revolutions have opened up.

The coming century is being referred to as the Biological Century. It is also being referred to as the Knowledge and Information age. Our country is among the major megabiodiversity regions of the world. In contrast to the richness of our genetic heritage, people living in the midst of it are poor. Jawaharlal Nehru drew attention to this irony when he remarked, "we are a poor people living in a rich country." I request you to consider how we can bridge the gap between the biological richness of our country and the economic poverty of our people.

Food security at the level of each individual can be achieved only by giving concurrent attention to food availability, access and absorption. Access to food involves having the requisite purchasing power, while biological absorption of food in the body requires clean drinking water and environmental hygiene. The new agronomy you will be discussing at this conference should help not only to produce more food but also more income to rural families and more livelihood opportunities in both rural and urban areas.

We should promote a new strategy of agriculture based on integrated genetic and natural resources management, and information and skill empowerment. We should also introduce as soon as possible an integrated genetic resources management programme based on the Global Convention on Biological Diversity. At the same time, it is important that we have effective legal and educational instruments in place for ensuring biosafety, bioethics and biosurveillance, and if I may say so guarding against the plunder of genetic and biological resources.

While caution is necessary, we should not deny ourselves the power conferred by new scientific tools for breeding genetic strains of crop plants capable of resisting pests and diseases as well as soil problems like salinity. Since water is likely to be a serious constraint in the coming century, we should launch a special programme in the area of Biotechnology and Water.

Modern information technology helps to take new skills and knowledge to those who have so far been bypassed by technology. I would suggest that we should establish in every Panchayat office an Information Shop, where location-specific information on meteorological, management and marketing factors as related to crops, farm animals and fisheries can be provided. Such Rural Information Shops should be operated by the village youth. We must make farming both intellectually satisfying and economically rewarding, if we are to attract and retain educated youth in agriculture. Fortunately, ecological agriculture is knowledge intensive and we should lose no further time in blending traditional wisdom with frontier technologies such as biotechnology and space, information and renewable energy technologies. We possess a vast treasure house of traditional knowledge and technologies. At the same time, we are assimilating new technologies at a fast pace. Hence, we have a unique opportunity to become leaders in ecotechnology as applied to crop and animal husbandry, fisheries and forestry.

In this context, I would like the scientists to focus on the problems relating to women. The theme of this year's World Food Day was "Women Feed the World". Even though women toil in the home, farm and field, their access to food is very limited. Any revolution, whether you call it green revolution, gene revolution or information revolution, must address the needs of women and children. Elimination of nutritional anemia in pregnant women and ensuring adequate nutrition to children should become overriding national priorities.

Agricultural and nutrition experts must come together to design new farming systems which would help to integrate nutritional considerations into the production system. This will be the speediest form of ensuring nutrition security at the level of each child, woman and man.

Modern science, with its marvellous array of new technologies, can to-day find solutions to many of the problems of mankind. But even science and technology cannot afford to ignore or leap over some of the basic social and economic questions that involve issues of justice and equity. Agriculture is a sphere in which the human factor is intimately involved especially in the developing and populous countries of the world. An equitable and rational ownership, distribution and utilization of the basic resource of land and forests are pre-requisites for the success of any agronomic revolution. I may merely raise this question lest we forget it in the euphoria of the wonderful possibilities that science is opening before us.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I extend a special welcome to the scientists from different parts of the world who have come here to participate in this important conference. I hope that atleast in areas such as food and nutrition security, knowledge will continue to be shared freely across the globe. This is particularly important in the context of the growing privatisation of agricultural research in industrialised countries. There must be a balance between public good and commercial gain. I appeal to scientists to show the way, so that to quote Albert Einstein, "Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours, in order that the creation of our minds shall be a blessing and not a curse."

I have great pleasure to inaugurate this Congress and wish its deliberations all success.


Jai Hind