The International Food Policy Research Institute's (IFPRI's) 'Vision 2020' envisages a world "where every person has access to sufficient food to sustain a healthy and productive life, where malnutrition is absent, and where food originates from efficient, effective, and low-cost food systems that are compatible with sustainable use of natural resources."
The recent approval of the food security ordinance by the union government represents a milestone in India to help the poor and malnourished. Noted agricultural scientist Prof MS Swaminathan called the Right To Food Act the brightest chapter in India's agricultural history. In the 1960s, India's food-deficit situation was dubbed as "ship-to-mouth" existence, as food came from the US on ships and it was consumed immediately.
There are four components of food security: availability of food; access to food; food utilisation; and food systems' stability. The food security ordinance is only concerned with economic access to food. For food absorption into the body, safe drinking water is needed. In addition, proper sanitation and basic healthcare are necessary. However, it is difficult to provide these as legal entitlements.
The food basket under the ordinance includes, besides wheat and rice, coarse cereals, also called "nutra-cereals" or "health food", e.g. bajra, jowar, maize, and ragi. Their inclusion in the distribution system would encourage farmers to increase their production and crop diversification.
These nutra-cereals are generally produced in dry, rainfed areas. They are climate-resilient and can buffer effects of climate change; and are expected to gain in importance in human nutritional security. As their procurement and consumption begin to increase, their production will also increase. This should strengthen nutritional security and food availability.
Now, there cannot be any complacency. Economic viability and ecological sustainability of farming must be ensured. India's burgeoning population poses a major challenge, and crop production is expected to decline under the effects of climate change.
* India's arable land is continuously declining (163.4 million hectares in 1979 against 158 in 2009).
* India imported foodgrains in 2003 and might face a similar situation in the future.
* Prof MS Swaminathan fears that India could face a major calamity if food production is not increased and if farmers are ignored.
* Recently, vice-chancellors of India's agricultural universities met in Karnal (Haryana) and expressed great concern about India being on the brink of becoming a food-importing nation.
* Climate change and uncertain rainfall could make assured food production difficult. Foodgrain production in 2001 was 197 million tonnes, when rainfall was 91% of the long-term average rainfall (LTA). The 2007-08 rainfall was more than the LTA and foodgrain production reached 230 million tonnes. In 2009, because of drought, India produced only 214 million tonnes of foodgrains.
* During 2000-2050, Ludhiana's average rainfall has been predicted to decrease by 75-100 mm from the LTA of 600-800 mm. Punjab's temperature has been projected to increase by 2.5°C during the same period.
* India's population is expected to be about 166 crore in 2050, which will severely stress the already dwindling natural resources, as food production must be increased by 80% from the current production of 253 million tonnes.
What can be done
* Programmes such as Right To Food cannot depend on foodgrain imports. India will need to do its level best to enhance its foodgrain production.
* An effective land and water use policy must be formulated so that natural resources of the country can be utilised efficiently and crop diversification can be realised.
* Institutes such as Punjab Agricultural University, which helped bring about the Green Revolution, should be accorded 'central status' so that agricultural research can be strengthened. Following the passage of the Food Security Act, agriculture should essentially become the responsibility of the central government. In the 1960s, there were only seven agricultural universities.
To bring about a second Green Revolution, the government should enhance the quality, not quantity, of agricultural universities. Currently, India has more than 50 poorly funded agricultural universities (including veterinary universities). Agriculture should not be considered a state subject anymore. For making the Right To Food Act a sustainable success, the union government must reverse the decline in agriculture and agricultural universities.
The writer is a former vice-chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. The views expressed are personal