A meal plan for all of India

In September this year a summit will be held in New York under the auspices of the United Nations to review the progress made during the last 10 years in achieving the targets set under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by member nations of the UN in 2000. The MDGs represent a global common minimum programme for sustainable human security and well-being.
In spite of the modesty of the goals set, progress in achieving them is inadequate in many developing countries, including India. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations points out that the number of children, women and men going to bed hungry now is over a billion (this number was 800 million in 2000). There is obviously a need to review our strategies and redouble our efforts in achieving all the MDGs, particularly the very first one relating to hunger and poverty by the year 2015.
The Economic Survey of India (2008) contained the following observation: “While poverty rates have declined significantly, malnutrition has remained stubbornly high. Malnutrition, as measured by underweight children below three years, constitutes 45.9 per cent as per the National Family Health Survey, 2005-06. It has also not significantly declined from its level of 47 per cent in the 1998-99 National Family Health Survey… It is evident that existing policies and programmes are not making a significant dent on malnutrition and need to be modified. While per capita consumption of cereals has declined, the share of non-cereals in food consumption has not grown to compensate for the decline in cereal availability”.
For achieving sustainable food security, concurrent attention will be necessary to ensure food availability, access and absorption. Access depends upon opportunities for employment, while absorption will be conditioned by clean drinking water, sanitation and healthcare. Thus, both food and non-food factors impact food security. All this will need greater attention to science and technology as applied to agriculture and food security. The following are some areas which need urgent attention:
Biodiversity: 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. On June 11, 2010, delegates from 90 countries, meeting in Busan, Republic of Korea, approved the establishment of an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, on the model of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). It will be prudent to set up a National Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in order to generate synergy among ongoing programmes.
Biotechnology: Recombinant DNA technology has provided powerful tools for moving genes across sexual barriers and for developing novel genetic combinations. It is important to use this tool for solving present and potential problems arising from unfavourable temperature, rainfall and sea level. During the last 20 years, scientists at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) have concentrated on identifying genes for salt water and drought tolerance. A US patent has been granted for the dehydrin gene from Avicennia marina responsible for salt tolerance in plants. Similarly, Glutathione S Transferase gene from Prosopis juliflora, conferring resistance to drought, has also been granted a US patent. These are very valuable genes and have to be combined with crop varieties having desirable agronomic and culinary characteristics. This has already been done by MSSRF scientists. Another area where recombinant DNA technology can be useful is in biofortification. Iron (Ferritin) rich rice varieties have been developed using genes from Avicennia marina. Thus there are uncommon opportunities for developing climate-resilient strains of crop plants, farm animals and fishes. Genes like Sub-1 in rice provide opportunities for breeding varieties for flood tolerance. There is need for setting up gene banks for a “warming India”.
Ecotechnology: Knowledge is a continuum. We cannot place traditional and modern knowledge into two different pigeonholes. Modern knowledge has its roots in ancient wisdom. Ecotechnology helps to blend traditional ecological prudence and techniques with frontier science and technology. Ecotechnology gives concurrent attention to ecology, economics, ethics, equity, energy and employment generation. A method of converting ecotechnology into jobs and income is through biovillages. A biovillage is one where concurrent attention is given to natural resources’ conservation and enhancement, improvement of small farm productivity and profitability, and generation of non-farm employment. The aim of the biovillage is to provide every individual in the village an opportunity for a productive and healthy life. The National Policy for Farmers placed in Parliament in November 2007 calls for as much emphasis on farmers’ income as on production. Such an income orientation to farming can be achieved only through Rural Systems Research. Unfortunately, agricultural universities and research institutions are yet to adopt such an integrated approach to improving agrarian and rural prosperity.
Information, Communication Technology (ICT): Bridging the urban-rural digital divide helps to bridge economic, skill and gender divides. Biotechnology, space technology and ICT are transformational technologies. We should make every village a knowledge centre in order to take the benefits of modern scientific knowledge and techniques to rural professions. Mahatma Gandhi urged that there should be a marriage between brain and brawn if Indian agriculture is to progress. This can be achieved through the effective use of ICT based on location specific needs and language. The Grameen Gyan Abhiyan provides a great opportunity for taking the benefits of ICT to the rural poor based on a last mile and last person connectivity. Synergy between the Internet and cellphone, or FM radio and cellphone helps to take the benefits of right information to the right place at the right time. “Rural knowledge revolution” is vital for ending all forms of divides and substituting them with the technological and skill upgradation of rural professions.
Food Security: In recent years there has been a paradigm shift from patronage to a rights approach in relation to information, education, employment and, in the case of tribal families, ownership of land. The Government of India has committed to bringing food security under the category of legal rights. A sustainable food security system will depend on adequate production, procurement on the basis of a minimum support price, preservation in modern silos or other forms of storage, and above all an efficient and corruption free public distribution system. The National Food Security Act provides a great opportunity for stimulating the conservation of natural resources, cultivation using new technologies, consumption of a wide range of grains, and farmer centric marketing. While Right to Information can be enforced through files, the right to food has to come from the farmer and the field. Right to food can be maintained only if there is increase in productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm, i.e. the evergreen revolution, spearheaded by families with small holdings.
The future of our food security system will depend upon the scientific and policy support we extend to our farming community who constitute one-fourth of the global farming community.
The green revolution was the result of a small government programme getting converted into a mass movement led by farm men and women. Today, our educational and research institutions are more obsessed with bricks rather than with brains. We must reverse the paradigm and nurture brains which can help to promote knowledge-intensive agriculture.

M.S. Swaminathan is the chairman of the National Commission on Farmers. He is considered to be the father of India’s green revolution.

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