Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Starvation or Death

Yesterday, the government of India made a decision, for the moment not to allow genetically modified Brinjals for sale in India. The decision that India has made will perhaps influence other countries. Particularly, a leading daily has reported that Bangladesh and Philippines are eagerly watching the course that India sets and that might guide them too.

Both Bangladesh and Philippines have large populations to feed and therein perhaps lays the commonality. And that too to a large measure will be the guiding factor in any decision that the government makes.

It is not that the dangers and the uncertainties of the genetically modified revolution driven by bio-technology and often called the second green revolution by its votaries are not known. They are known. The concept is new and no one knows fully the long term implications that going this route will have. And this is a fact. Those who love the hate the multi nationals talk of how a few giants will eventually come to monopolize seeds and then acting as a cartel control seed prices and threatening national food security, bring nations to their knees.

If OPEC countries can act as a cartel and to a large extent control global oil prices, why not seed companies? Multi nationals after all are beholden to no one but the balance sheet and the shareholders. This is true.

There are also environmental and health hazards up on the radar; some of them are known or can be predicted but there are many which may be totally unknown at the present time. All of this is known and it is true; but yet in this present day and time, there may be no other options but to go this route.

Looking back at history, at the time of the first green revolution when fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seeds began to be used in a big way in the 60s, the dangers that could be posed were known then too. But again there was no alternative.
Traditionally practiced forms of farming had peaked in terms of what could be produced in terms of yields and the population was growing. India was literally surviving from “ship to mouth” as it was called then with food imports literally being rushed to ration shops to ward off impending starvation and the memories of the Great Bengal Famine of the 40s which killed close to 3 million people or more were still fresh.

And so the government of Indira Gandhi went ahead to back the efforts of MS Swaminathan and others. The dangers that fertilizers, chemical pesticides and such were not and could not be avoided but systemic famine and mass starvation became history. It is not that fertilizers and pesticides were good; it is just that the alternative is worse.

Today again, we are standing at just such a perch. According to the economist Yogendra Alagh, with the emphasis on infrastructure, SEZ and so on, and the resultant neglect of agriculture from the ’90s, the agricultural growth rate went down.

For nearly a decade, agricultural production had stagnated. The spectacular yield growth recorded in the post-Green Revolution years in Punjab and Haryana has receded into history. Of the multiple problems confronting agriculture, rapid fragmentation of land holdings is keeping pace with increasing population. In 1976-77, the average size of the holdings was estimated at 2 hectares, while in 1980-81, it came down to 1.8 hectares. Today, it stands at a mere 0.2 hectares.
The total number of land holdings in 1981 were around 89 million; today these have crossed 100 million. By the turn of the century, the average land holding will come down to 0.11 hectares. It is quite obvious that with such small land holdings, Indian agriculture cannot adopt high-tech farm practices. So in the long run , do we really have the choice to avoid genetically modified foods on our dining table? I think not. The choice it would seem is inevitable…. Tomorrow if not today.

1 comment:

The unsure ascetic said...

very informative sir. It would soon be fashionable for IIM grads to turn farmers I guess. cos' the Ag sector really needs reform and intelligent work for overall development and health of this nation.