Veteran agricultural scientist and alumnus of Harvard and Berkeley Universities, Dr Peter Kenmore was in Mumbai for NABARD’s 30th anniversary lecture on ‘Future of Global Agriculture: Challenges and Opportunities for India.’ This United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization India representative spoke to Yogesh Pawar on the current scenario in agriculture. Some excerpts:
There’s a lot of churn over GM technology in India. At a time when the country is grappling with its worst agrarian crisis, cotton farmers’ suicides have led to demands for the banning of Bt cotton. Your take.
While it is unfortunate that farmers are dying, if you look at what is happening globally no economy in the world has ever been kind to cotton farmers ever. Having said that, productivity was its highest between 2001-03 when Bt cotton was less than 10% of the total cotton grown. Since then the rate of growth has stagnated. Targetting one transgene or one pest is not the way ahead. Farmers will have to decide whether they want crops that tall (raises hand to shoulder level) with all leaves and stem or only this tall (takes his hand to his knee level) with more dense growth of cotton balls on them? Already cotton yield in India is 30% of China and half of Bangladesh. The total production has increased because of increase in area under cultivation.
Do you agree when farmers groups and activists working with them complain that current scheme of things in India takes away their rights and empowers large pesticide and GM technology MNCs and large corporates.
It is true that the MNCs and corporates have the set-up and funds at their dispsal to undertake research. They will obviously look at areas of research which suit them the best. The system will have to incentivise farmer-friendly areas of research creating win-win situations and this is the way ahead in the long term.
Water for crop irrigation is already woefully inadequate. There are many who are calling the current drought in Maharashtra and neighbouring states worse than 1972. How do you see this panning out?
India has 30% lesser water for agriculture than only decade ago. Even if the all irrigation resources are worked to their optimum over half of the farmland still has to be rain-fed. In other words this means the farmers have lesser and lesser control over water. There is no way we can sustain such water-intesive agriculture with such huge losses. There is enough a traditional knowledge base among the farmers on using such techniques. There should be an effort at working with farmer groups and enhancing the sharing of such knowledge bases. Farmers in Andhra for example decide on whether they will plant sunflower or paddy depending on the water table which the community monitors.
While many credit the Green Revolution for the change from a country which depended on food-aid to feeding her people, there are others who think it brought its own ills in its wake?
When basic nutrition and medical care and public health interventions hit a country where they had’t been, you got a sharp increase in infant survival and child survival rates. The death rate went down and birth rate went up. The Green Revolution was a way to use technology to ensure there was food for everyone. Most of rice growing Asia, began growing two crops instead of one every year. This was necessary. In hindsight there will always be a feeling that things could have been done differently but the Green Revolution ensured there was food for all. Under today’s circumstances it would perhaps be necessary to tweak things a bit.
You have a background of working with rice as a crop? Do you think it will continue to dominate as a staple of both Indian agriculture and diet?
Rice is very important. For over four or five thousand years, it has fed more individuals of our species than any other food plant. Hugh Thomas, a historian who wrote a history of the world, said that a one sentence summary, if one talks statistically of the last ten thousand years, is “the age of rice farming,” because more human beings have practiced rice farming than any other occupation during that ten thousand years. For both those reasons rice is really important. Even the riverine plains which tend to flood are suited to paddy cultivation.When flooding kills most weeds that would grow up and compete with the rice. So you’ve got an added advantage. You can put it into what would otherwise be a marginal environment. Often, that environment gets a little bit of help in terms of water carrying silt and nutrients downstream from weathering of geological formations, but also the ecosystem in the water itself includes microorganisms that fix nitrogen, so that you’re adding nitrogen into every square meter of the rice paddy, maybe thirty or forty kilos of nitrogen worth every year free. For those reasons - the water is assured that the weeds are out-competed and there’s a bit of an extra kick of nitrogen - rice has been a good bet. Therefore civilizations grew up with it.
You’ve got loads of places where folks have been able to count on a harvest. If you can count on a harvest three out of every four years, you’re doing much better than in a lot of rain fed areas growing things like wheat, where you may only get two out of every three years. India’s own demand is so huge that most of its production is consumed within the country but as stocks are growing, soon I hope to see India exporting rice.
Which states are doing very well in this regard?
Regions in the east which often got bypassed by the earlier Green Revolution are now catching up rather briskly. SO much so that they are putting others far behind. Jharkhand has doubled its rice production while Bihar had increased by an impressive 60%. These are success stories that one needs to go after, find out what is going right so that it can be adapted and put to use in other regions too.
India has a whopping 237 million plus undernourished people and nearly half the children in the age-group of 0-6 are malnourished. Yet we are accosted with images of huge stockpiles of grain rotting. What according to you could end this tragic paradox?
It is saddening to see those images and the statistics. Countries like Brazil which were there have found a way out with local food security circuits. So foodgrains growing in one part do not have to travel thousands of kms to reach the end user. Once such circuits are created, it cuts down not only transportation costs but also wastage. Within India Chhatisgarh is a shining example of how they have done exactly this with the rice they produce. Other states should follow suit.
You have often spoken of the harmful effects of pesticides and how this decreases yields in the long run. Why then do farmers continue to use them?
First they were given free pesticides. The incentives set by policies in the 1960s and ‘70s were often perverse, so that when the price of fertilizers or pesticides was reduced artificially by government investment, farmers used them more. Farmers weren’t being asked to make a market manager decision. They were basically told that they would become absorbers of and users of these inputs. The release of the insect pests in the rice fields didn’t happen immediately; it usually took a certain number of generations, maybe even four or five years worth. If the Green Revolution rice varieties were released in 1966, ’67, the first pest outbreaks that were being regularly reported and documented were around 1970. And from that time on, all through South and Southeast Asia, every year, different countries would report problems like this. The first response was spray more. And that often created more of a problem. The second response was breed rice varieties that taste bad to the insects and therefore control the insects with the rice variety, but keep spraying them anyway. I arrived in ’77 and this was in the middle of all of this, when they realized that once you had the first set of resistant varieties, the insects kept evolving. Mr. Darwin is still correct. Under that tremendous selection pressure, they evolved to be able to eat the resistant varieties fairly quickly so that you had a boom and bust cycle. You had pest outbreaks, resistant variety, pests collapse, selection pressure, evolution, pest outbreaks, and the pests kept breaking out because you kept spraying everything. So you made a very complicated system, driven by central governments making deals with input suppliers, whether it’s fertilizer companies or pesticide companies, and making sure that farmers used all those inputs, sometimes with encouragement from the military, depending on the country you were in. They then went into a cycle of pest outbreak followed by collapse followed by outbreak followed by collapse.
What is the alternative then?
Integrated pest management is the only way to do it. It is a process of managing crops so that the maximum service of pest controls provided by the naturally occurring species and human interventions don’t disrupt naturally occurring species doing their job. Integrated pest management means thinking about crops as ecosystems and adding things like resistant varieties, time of harvest, cultivation practices, fertilizer levels, and, in the last step, pesticides, only when the naturally occurring pest control isn’t keeping the pests to the desired levels. Integrated pest management accepts that there will always be pests. If there are a low number of pests, they provide food for the natural enemies. If there are too many pests, one should intervene. Sometimes one can intervene with a biological introduction, which can be, for example, a pathogen, like a virus or bacteria that eats insects. Sometimes, in rare cases, one can intervene by introducing an insect from a different place, who will then naturally go in, eat pests, reproduce, and stay in the field eating the pests from then on. Integrated pest management uses all of these approaches. While supporting increased crop production and increased yields, it tries to avoid disrupting the natural ecosystem of that crop field.
Most researchers and scientists, particularly in India show huge disdain for the average farmer. Who has the right answer, scientist or farmer?
Scientists never have the answer. They work toward one. Farmers produce an answer. The experience of doing research as a farmer on one’s own farm is exciting. Discovering something new, asking a question in the field, making observations, and finding out an answer to that question gives you ownership of that answer in a way that no reading and no teacher will ever be able to do. If you hear something, you forget it. If you see it, maybe you’ll remember it a little bit longer. But if you discover something, you own it. And that becomes part of your problem solving. And because you discovered it, you can adapt it later.
It’s not about what the farmers give the researchers, although they do give the researchers a lot. It’s what the farmers give themselves when they’re doing science. We talk about experiential learning. This does not mean learning by doing. Experiential learning is a learning process that gives greater value to your own experience. It means that your experience as a farmer is worth something. The observations you make, the patterns that you perceive. When you think about a crop having two kinds of bugs, the ones that eat plants and the ones that eat other bugs, it changes the way you think about that crop. It means that you’re conserving something greater than just the leaves and the roots and the seeds. You’re conserving the crop-associated animals with the crop-associated biodiversity. And that’s part of your normal management. When you think about that, you think twice or three times before you start spraying it. You think twice or three times about the impact of a new variety.
As the world changes to lesser pesticide use and population is going on increasing, will there be enough food for people?
Yes, there’s going to be enough food. Whether they get it or not is a different question. Food production will stay with population. There are still lots of ways that food production is growing. But there are problems. In a lot of places, like in Asia, land is going out of food production because it’s being built into factory land. In a place like Indonesia, the island of Java is a hugely dense place- hundreds and hundreds of people on average per kilometer. And yet we’re losing rice land there because it’s going into factories and an occasional golf course near the cities. Overall food production keeps going up. It doesn’t go up as fast but the overall food production is going up in places like that even with slightly less land and less prime land.
Everyone talks about the challenge of when are we going to hit nine billion people in the world? When it will taper off?
There’re going to be choices that have to be made. There’re going to be choices about charging for water. I don’t see absolute production as being the big issue. It certainly isn’t the issue in food insecurity right now. Food insecurity now has to do with conflict. It has to do with infrastructure of people just having access to markets.