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Rediff.com  » Business » Science can help feed the hungry

Science can help feed the hungry

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July 16, 2004 13:52 IST

India has been a leader in applying science to meet the challenge of feeding its large and growing population. The dire predictions of the 1960s, when it was feared that India would not be able to produce enough food for its people, did not come true.

Several reasons accounted for this miraculous turnaround: pro-science policies, investments in water and fertiliser, and adoption of new seed-based technologies.

Instead, the outcome was that foodgrain production more than doubled. Clear public policy commitments, together with a willingness to make new investments, enabled India to feed hundreds of millions of people.

Once again, India faces momentous choices. Despite past progress, this country is still home to the largest number of hungry people anywhere in the world. Some 300 million face food insecurity, more than in all of Africa.

An emerging consensus now exists that the economic well-being of farmers must also be improved. Thanks to continuing advances in science, here in India and around the world, India has the potential to feed its hungry and lift its farmers out of poverty.

Agricultural biotechnology is helping researchers understand and design the genetic potential of crops to produce more food than ever before.

Scientists in India are developing new ways to reduce losses from devastating pests and diseases. They are moving rapidly to develop drought resistant, high nutrition crops. New strains of rice, wheat, maize and mustard will offer a means of designing a nutritional safety net for the poor.

These crops have the potential to reduce the insidious burden of iron-deficiency anaemia or Vitamin A deficiency, which affects huge numbers of people, especially women and children. They are also developing foods with built-in, biotechnology-based protection against insect attack, which can be safer with far lower levels of dangerous mycotoxins resulting from fungal infestation after insect damage.

Despite tremendous opportunities, opposition to these technologies inhibits their delivery to India's farmers and consumers. Unlike medical biotechnology, where new vaccines and other advances are welcomed, a most unlikely alliance of environmental groups and pesticide manufacturers has sought to block what are ultimately life-saving advances in food production.

Ironically, individuals and organisations committed to protecting the environment have sought to prohibit new strains of biotech cotton, which require far fewer applications of toxic pesticide. Less pesticide use can mean more income and better health for farmers and their families, not to mention a general improvement for the environment.

Farmers and scientists around the world are coming together to stand up against campaigns of disinformation. Recently, Brazil finally approved biotech soybeans, after smallholder farmers in that country showed that they were losing many hundreds of dollars of income per hectare because activists had used the courts to block the new technology.

These farmers knew that this same technology had been approved as safe elsewhere in South America, North America, Europe and Japan. Scientific analysis and science-based regulatory systems are the foundation of food safety and also help promote global trade.

Another tactic used by those seeking to block scientific advances in agriculture is to assert that biotechnology is simply a tool with which multinational corporations will subjugate unwitting farmers.

Moving beyond this rather demeaning characterisation of farmers as unable to make sound choices for themselves, the arguments advanced in the name of anti-globalisation are not convincing, especially in India. India has a tremendous scientific capacity that is generating agricultural biotechnologies.

The government is investing wisely through the work of the department of biotechnology, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and others. Many companies, Indian and American, are also seeking new solutions to the problems facing India's farmers.

India and the US are launching a series of joint research efforts aimed at developing crops that resist pests, increase yields and improve nutrition. These technologies will link both public- and private-sector efforts to develop crops that benefit farmers and consumers and, in particular, help feed India's poor.

A significant step in this collaborative direction occurred on June 29, 2004, when secretary M K Bhan of the Department of Biotechnology and I signed a Letter of Intent to enhance cooperation in agricultural biotechnology research and development.

Continued investment in agricultural biotechnology in India will ultimately depend on the development and commercialisation of products that serve the needs of India's farmers and consumers.

In so doing, it is critical that India makes scientifically sound choices that reflect the country's food security and environmental and economic interests.

Possibly well-meaning, but seriously misguided groups, often with links to countries where current agricultural productivity and food security are no longer significant concerns, have spread unfounded fears and misinformation.

Agricultural biotechnology alone will not, of course, solve the challenge of feeding a growing population. The causes of hunger are complex, as are the solutions to its eradication. There are no panaceas. Sound technology and policy, natural resource management, investments in new techniques, efficient markets and expanding global trade are all important.

But turning our backs on science will hardly aid the cause of agricultural development, food security and rural economic growth in India.

On the contrary, unscientific and emotional opposition to agricultural biotechnology will slow the development of new means of combating drought, pests and crop diseases. The resulting delays may not be felt by the well-off, but they will do serious harm to the poor. All of us urgently need the benefits science has to offer.

(The writer is US Ambassador to India)

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David C Mulford
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