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Reapers keepers

The impetus provided by the first Green Revolution has slowed down. Genetic engineering promises to propel us towards a more eco-friendly, sustainable agricultural system.

india Updated: Mar 10, 2006 02:25 IST

Genetically Modified (GM) food crops are not the only way to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing world hunger by half by 2015. However, increased farm productivity as a result of GM crops provides an important means to that end. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be nine billion people in the world. With the impending need to double food production, can we then afford to ignore plant biotechnology?

Through the ages, genetic improvement of crops has always preceded agricultural growth in developed and developing countries alike. Norman Borlaug relied on insect-resistant, high-yield wheat to successfully launch what has now been termed the first Green Revolution. This helped India embark on the road to achieving self-sustenance.

Initiated in 1978, the first Green Revolution depended on increased use of irrigation, pesticides and fertilisers to drive agricultural growth. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh believes that the technologies and strategies counted on by the first Green Revolution seem to have run their course. The advent of genetic engineering promises to propel us towards a more eco-friendly, sustainable agricultural system, which India direly needs.

Today, India must make another leap — from subsistence-farming to sustainable development. The impetus given to agricultural growth in India by the first Green Revolution has slowed down. There is an urgent need for renewed thrust on research to increase agricultural incomes and productivity. The key lies in achieving a harmonious blend of indigenous knowledge with advanced science and proper application of biotechnology to the improvement of seeds.

Since the introduction of biotech crops 10 years ago, it has been proven that cultivation of biotech seeds such as Bt cotton seeds deliver consistent and long-term agronomic, environmental, economic, health and social benefits to farmers and, increasingly, to society at large. With large dry-land areas in India that have hitherto not been arable, farmers are increasingly turning to biotech crops to make a living. Farmers in India are also recognising the more immediate benefits of cultivating such crops — improved yield, higher profits and reduction in expenditure on pesticides.

Two lesser-known advantages of plant biotechnology are provision of nutrient-enhanced foods and environmental benefits. The introduction of Vitamin A-enhanced Golden Rice promises to provide the essential vitamin to poorer communities in regions where rice is the staple diet. Today, when roughly 124 million people across the world suffer from night blindness, this could translate to a medical breakthrough. Recently, researchers have also proved that GM maize can help tackle the problem of iron deficiency among consumers, especially in developing nations.

Plant biotechnology is also an eco-friendly option. The first Green Revolution has left behind
a legacy of increased irrigation and unrestrained fertiliser and pesticide usage. GM crops that are insect-resistant promote a culture of intelligent pesticide usage. Furthermore, biotechnology allows farmers to produce higher yields on less land. Higher yields are crucial as acceleration in urbanisation is playing a major role in depleting agriculture land. Aiming to double farm output using conventional methods could result in resorting to deforestation to increase cropland. Graham Brookes, Director of PG Economics, Britain, says, “The economic and the environmental benefits associated with the technology can only get greater.” PG Economics has just completed a global review of the economic and the environmental impact of biotech crops. The cultivation of biotech crops has directly resulted in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions across the world. In fact, in 2004, 10 billion kg less carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere as a result of the use of biotech crops. Moreover, GM crops require less tilling of the soil, therefore, lessen soil erosion.

No technology is considered an unmitigated blessing, especially when first introduced. However, it is up to human ingenuity to harness it for societal good. Today, a number of activists are opposing modern biotechnology on lofty ideological and philosophical grounds, many without any factual evidence to support their wild claims of negative impact on human health and the environment. In fact, GM crops are extensively tested before they can be brought to the market. They have to be approved by government regulatory bodies, and this process takes years.

India is poised on the threshold of the next Green Revolution — it will mark a qualitative change in agricultural technology. It has the potential to double its output from 200 million tonnes to 400 million tonnes over the next four years. However, like UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “We must move from promises to practice, from commitments to concrete projects, from intentions to implementations.” It is modern biotechnology that will move conventional Indian agriculture closer to the ideals of sustainable development. In the words of former US President Jimmy Carter, “Responsible biotech is not the enemy; starvation is.”


The writer is Chairman Emeritus, Crop Life India

First Published: Mar 10, 2006 02:25 IST