Why GM Food is Key to Food Security in India

There has been significant amount of debate in the recent years on whether India should go for transgenic or genetically modified (GM) crops or not. There is evidence that GM foods enhance productivity and increase food security. However, people who are against the motion points out that it will encourage monoculture and end diversity of traditional crops. Besides, GM crops are still not perceived to be fully safe for consumption; although there is no scientific proof.

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This is a very significant issue as the economic security of the country depends heavily upon agriculture that supports over 58% of the population, against 75% of the population in time of the independence. But, on the onset of green revolution in the late 1960s, India has made impressive strides in agriculture with the help of better chemicals, high-yielding cereals and other plant varieties. The revolution has substantially boosted agricultural output, increasing it 2.85 times to 235 million tones helping feed the country`s population that has swollen from 440 million to 1.2 billion.

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India needs self-sufficiency in agriculture in order to save millions from starvation and drive them out of poverty. Agriculture declined in the mid -`90s causing stagnation and decline in the farmers` income. Agriculture is no more productive for small and marginal farmers, many of whom committed suicide because of debt problems. Studies show that more than 40% of farmers would switch to another job. According to Sudhir Panwar, the president of the Kisan jagriti Manch “
farmers are in agriculture by compulsion, not by choice. The impact is most visible in UP, which has seen net decline of 49 lakh agriculture workers in the last five years. The NSS report shows number of total agriculture workers went down from 4.03 crore in 2004-05 to 3.69 crore in 2009-10 and 3.54 crore in 2011-12.”

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The reason is not far to seek. In spite of the success of the green revolution, contribution of agriculture and allied sector to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has fallen from 61% to 19% in the last five decades. At present, India sustains 16.8% of global population on 4.2% of world`s water resources and 2.3% of global land. Per capita availability of resources is four to six times less compares to the world average. This will decrease further due to increasing demographic pressure and consequent diversion of the land for non-agricultural uses.
While sparing virtually negligible land for agricultural use, around 51% of India`s geographical area is under cultivation as compared to 11% of the world average. The present cropping intensity of 136% has registered an increase of only 25% since Independence. Rain-fed dryland constitutes 65% of the total net sown area. Besides, there is an unprecedented degradation of land (107 million hectare) and groundwater resource, and also fall in growth rate of total factor productivity. According to the experts in UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2050, the global population is expected to increase by 40% while the food production need will expand by more than 70% with a rapidly growing middle-class in the developing countries. By 2017, India`s population will grow to 1.3 billion. This will create fresh demand for food items in terms of quantity, quality and affordability. Therefore, current agricultural output needs to be doubled against odds like changing climatic conditions, declining ratio of arable land to population and water getting scarcer.
Agriculture faces toughest challenges arising mainly from grim competition for supplies of fresh water, with its share dropping to 75% from the present 83% in the near future, in the wake of growing industrial and domestic sectors. Presently, excess exploitation of groundwater has caused sharm depletion of water table in central Punjab, Haryana, West Uttarpradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. In UP, over 260 out of total 800 blocks are already declared ‘dark zones’. Yet, government has not taken water conservation measures for various political reasons. Overuse of canal water in South-west Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan is leading water logging and development of secondary salinity. Conjunctive use of water and diversification of rice-water is required. The problem is compounded by water wastage, around 18.4 million m3/day. Utilising waste water after treatment for irrigation is yet to be made part of water conservation policy.

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Micro-irrigation and resource conservation technologies (RCTs), economising on water and nutrients need to be promoted in a big way.

Poor soil fertility is another challenge. Around 25 million hectares of land in the country has low productivity of less than 1 tonne/hectare due to deficiencies and toxicities of nutrients. Adoption of cost-effective technology to improve this mass of land could add 25 million tonnes of food grains to the national food basket per annum.

Production capacity of the ecosystem is constantly wearing away due to reckless use of chemicals and poor management of natural resources. The issue needs to be approached in terms of food security.

This brings into the picture GM crops, a new wave in agriculture as it can increase productivity and help farmers meet food needs of ever increasing population. GM crops are more robust against biotic and abiotic stresses, can resist disease, insects, weeds and climatic changes and are also better in value and nutrient composition. They are capable to tide natural vagaries like droughts, floods and climatic change conditions.

India has drawn a blank in developing the technology even after spending over Rs 200 crore on it in the last decade, while US takes the lead.

In 2012, 170 million hectares of land, around 12% of the global arable land, was planted with GM crops of soybean, corn, cotton and canola in 28 countries. United States of America planted the largest area, 69.5 million hectares, while Brazil showed highest increase in area planted with biotech crops (6.3 million hectares). India planted 10.8 million hectares of Bt cotton and the farm income from 2002 to 2011 was 12.6 billion dollars. Income from Bt cotton among small farm households in India made a positive impact on food security and dietary quality, suggesting transgenic crops can be important in food security strategy.
Still the role of GM crops for food security remains a subject of controversy. The negative perception about GM foods is despite no adverse impact reported from any part of US where GM crops are in use for over two decades. In a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, FAO declared GM crops are not inherently less safe than conventional crops. The issue should be approached in the light of scientific proof. Punjab Government joined hands with the US-based biotech company Monsanto for developing research demonstration farms. UP needs to follow suit. When asked to comment, chief secretary Jawed Usmani said: “We are not averse to the idea, but a decision has yet to be taken.”
There is a need for a holistic approach in which appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks are required to ensure that the needs of poor farmers and consumers are taken into account and undesirable social consequences are avoided.

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