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'The days of cheap food are over': M S Swaminathan

By Rashme Sehgal

M S Swaminathan analyses the global food crisis

 A plant geneticist by training, Professor M S Swaminathan's contributions to the agricultural renaissance of India have caused him to be referred to as the scientific leader of the green revolution movement. His advocacy of sustainable agriculture leading to an ever-green revolution makes him a leader in the field of sustainable food security. But in the last decade, the Green Revolution has faltered, agriculture is in crisis, and thousands of debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide. In this interview, Swaminathan analyses the global food crisis and feels there is no easy solution. Instead, a long-term strategy has to be thought out to ensure increased production and a better deal for Indian farmers.

We seem to be facing a global food crisis.
We are heading towards a global food crisis that has been triggered by both global and national trends. I would say that an international emergency is developing across the globe. Look at the situation in African nations that are also facing food shortages. These nations used to get grain under the World Food Programme, but now they are being given money. You cannot eat money.

Why has this happened?
For a number of reasons. The high price of petroleum products and the high price of agricultural inputs are forcing the diversion of prime farm land to other products. For example, farmers in the US and in Europe are growing wheat instead of maize to feed livestock and cattle. In India, farmers are growing crops for ethanol on their farm lands. This should be restricted to degraded land. I am opposed to prime land being used to grow fuel.

Foodgrain production is coming down even in India.
India has many problems to contend with. Our soil is hungry and thirsty. It lacks a variety of nutrients, but our policies have favoured only nitrogen.

The other major issue is the need for the government to start soil-testing laboratories that can spread out to every district in the country and offer farmers a health card on their soil. The only state that has invested in this so far is Gujarat. We also need to focus on water and on providing better irrigation facilities.

You have been stressing the need to improve irrigation facilities.
We must give importance to irrigation, especially in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh which are all single-crop areas. But food production of millet, bajra and other drought-tolerant crop varieties must also be encouraged. We are presently importing pulses and oilseed at very high prices. That is why I feel farmers in drought areas need a lot of support, especially with extension advice having collapsed.

There has to be a synergy between research and public policy. In India, policies are skewed in favour of the urban consumer. Look at the European Union whose largest court spends all its time formulating a common agriculture policy for farmers who belong to the European Union. In India, we wake up only when there is a calamity. During the early-1960s, the government imported 10 million tonnes of foodgrain under the PL 48 programme. Let us hope this 21st century crisis will lead to an Evergreen Revolution.

Is part of the problem declining investments in agriculture?
It has been declining over several years: the result is this present crisis. During the Sixth Five-Year Plan, over 12% of funds were marked for irrigation. And the farm sector grew at a phenomenal 10%. Compare that to the present 2%.

Experts point to climate change as also playing havoc with farmers.
Uncertain weather conditions are playing havoc. Agriculture has become the riskiest profession in the world. Farmers have to contend with more frequent drought and also more frequent floods. They just do not have the facilities to contend with these weather changes.

But farmers have, over the centuries, had to contend with drought and floods...
There is a difference between the past and the present. Today, climate change is human-induced and has been caused by excessive burning of fossil fuels.

To quote figures on the kind of depletion of global food stocks, I must point out that the FAO's figures for 2007 show that we have close to 400 million tonnes, as opposed to 760 million tonnes two years ago. Food stocks globally have come down by 40%.

The four countries that are going to be immediately affected are China, India, Brazil and Kenya because these countries are the largest consumers of wheat and rice grain in the world.

As early as the '80s, I had published a paper on how a one-degree-centigrade increase in temperature affected wheat production in Punjab and Haryana. It meant one week less in the crop duration cycle, and that affected its entire ripening process.

A point that I would also like to emphasise is that food security is important for human beings, but it is just as important for livestock and animals. We have the largest number of cattle, goats and buffaloes in the world. They need food as well.

It's all very well to highlight the 15-20% of population that has a high purchasing power. But food and water security are important across the entire population.

How will climate change impact rice and wheat?
Rice possesses high adaptation. You can grow it in regions below sea level and also higher up in states such as Himachal Pradesh. Wheat is a more sensitive crop. With global warming and the consequent melting of ice, the Indo-Gangetic plains could see a lot of floods. This entire area should now be ready with plans to grow deep-water or floating rice. Thailand is doing this and some parts of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are also trying it out.

We have now entered the wheat harvest season.
Yes, the next few weeks are going to be crucial. While the poor farmers will sell their wheat to the Food Corporation of India on a cash-and-carry basis, the richer farmers will wait and see how prices develop.

The wheat procurement price has to be adjusted on the basis of both the national and international price. Of course, the government has to ensure food security for all its schemes, including the ICDS and other such schemes. We need to create a National Food Security Board whose members cut across all political lines.

Four crore farmers have been relieved of their debt burden. But we now need to make them eligible for institutional credit. We must also give them a smart card that will allow them to get fertilisers and seed at subsidised rates.

How are farmers reacting to contract farming?
Farmers should not part with their land. What they need to start doing instead is to go in for water management, better threshing and harvesting, and pest-proofing. Contract farming can work only if it benefits both purchaser and cultivator. There is a need to set up a contract farming council in every state. Contract farming can only pick up if a strict code of ethics is drawn up and followed. This has not happened so far.

How is the situation in India going to unravel in the coming years?
The government has to come up with a firm action plan. The National Food Security Mission (NFSM) must prepare a plan which will look into all the various inputs required to raise production. For example, jatropha and sugarcane grown for fuel should be allowed to be grown only on waste and degraded land. China has prohibited 'bread and butter' land growing anything except food.

The other point I would like to emphasise is that, in the future, governments across the globe are going to ban the export of food from their own countries. It will simply not be available. Today, we are paying Rs 1,000 as the minimum price to farmers for the purchase of wheat, but we are paying Rs 2,000 for imported wheat. A day may soon come when the import of food items stops. We have to be ready for such a situation.

Let me make it very clear that the days of cheap food are over, just as the days of cheap oil are over.

What kind of contingency plans will our government have to come up with?
We need to come up with a drought code, a flood code and a good weather code. I put this point before the agriculture minister. They need to come up with a scheme very quickly. Grain reserves are important for food security, seed reserves are important for crop security, and a proper contingency plan must be in place to ensure minimum devastation in case of floods. Such a plan does not mean a mere piece of paper, rather it should help direct a farmer who has lost his main crop to come up with a second plan; what kind of crop he should grow next.

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008