Darwinism in the age of warming

In 2009, the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of the life and work of Charles Darwin, a transformational scientist who brought about a revolution in our understanding of evolution. Evolution through natural selection among living organisms leading to the survival of the fittest was a concept alien to the Christian thought at Darwin’s time since there was strong faith in the heavenly creation of all living organisms of our planet.
From 1831-1836, Darwin toured the world in HMS Beagle. He was dazzled by the amazing diversity of life and started to wonder how it might have originated. Darwin became a popular sensation because his theories required not only the replacement of one scientific view with another, but also the rejection of views widely held by an entire culture. Darwin landed hard on ethical and metaphysical concepts dear to every heart. He was lampooned by cartoonists. His books were burned. For 22 years after he stepped off the Beagle, he published nothing, and then he unleashed the storm he never would have felt if he had just gone on as the quiet country parson he seemed destined to become.
Evolution of higher forms of life including human beings, from fish and other forms of living organisms, was an accepted view in the ancient Indian thought, as exemplified by the 10 forms of manifestation of God on earth. “Variety is the spice of life” is a common saying. Variation is a must for selection to occur. Today, we are confronted with the prospect of human-induced changes in climate, leading to adverse changes in temperature, precipitation, flood and sea level. We will have to be prepared to face the consequences of drought, flood and coastal storms more frequently. Selection of genes for a warming planet has, therefore, become an urgent task. Fortunately, there is considerable variability in nature with reference to adaptation to new climatic conditions. Thus, halophytes, which are resistant to salinity, and xerophytes, which are resistant to moisture stress, occur in nature. This is why Mahatma Gandhi said that “nature provides for everyone’s need, but not for everybody’s greed”.
Gregor Mendel, who propounded the laws of inheritance or genetics, published his work in 1865, six years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Life. From 1856-63, Mendel cultivated 29,000 pea plants to investigate how evolution worked, i.e. how characteristics were passed down the generations. He figured out the basic principles of genetics. He showed that offspring received characteristics from both parents, but only the dominant characteristic trait was expressed. Mendel’s work was rediscovered in 1900.
Mendelian Genetics, now reinforced by molecular genetics, helps us to create new genetic combinations capable of surviving under the adverse circumstances created by global warming. Molecular genetics, which helps us to move genes across sexual barriers, has validated the truth behind physician Charaka’s statement that there is no useless plant or animal in the world. Thus, scientists at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, have been able to develop salt-tolerant varieties of rice by transferring genes from the mangrove species Avicennia marina and drought-tolerant varieties of rice using genes from Prosopis juliflora. Such novel genetic combinations help us to take advantage of Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest.
Halophytic plants and salinity-tolerant crops like the genetically-modified rice developed by the research foundation can help to launch a sea water farming movement along our vast coastline. Agro-forestry systems involving the cultivation of mangroves, Salicornia, Sesuvium, Atriplex and other salt-tolerant shrubs and trees together with mariculture will open up new livelihood opportunities for coastal communities. Salt-cum-flood tolerant rice varieties can also be developed by incorporating the mangrove gene into floating or flood-tolerant varieties of rice.
Artisanal or small-scale fisheries can become economically and technologically attractive by introducing cellphones carrying data on wave heights and the location of fish shoals. Modern information technology has opened up new chapter in artisanal fisheries. Also, the sea-water farming methodology can help to increase yield and income from coastal aquaculture.
By linking the Darwinian concept of evolution with the principles and tools of Mendelian and molecular genetics, we can not only safeguard our food security in an era of climate change, but also strengthen the ecological security of coastal areas and the livelihood security of coastal communities.
Food inflation prevailing in the country is partly due to the high cost of pulses. These protein-rich crops are grown in rain-fed areas which constitute 60 per cent of our cultivated area. Available data indicates that we can double the yield of pulse crops like arhar, moong, urad, chenna etc by introducing an integrated package involving attention to soil health enhancement, efficient water use and harvesting, use of improved seeds and pest management, credit and insurance and, above all, assured and remunerative marketing. These five components of the “pulses revolution strategy” should be incorporated in the 60,000 pulses and oilseed villages included by the finance minister in Budget 2010-11. If this programme is implemented properly with the active participation of farm families, we can easily produce the additional four million tonnes of pulses we urgently need. Let us convert the calamity associated with climate change into an opportunity for spreading conservation and climate resilient farming methods.
Another component of food inflation is the rising price of milk. About 80 per cent of the cost of milk is due to the cost of fodder and feed. We should stop exporting oilseed cakes and concentrates and make them available to milk producers. We are now discussing food security for over 120 crore children, women and men. We should pay equal attention to feed and fodder security by establishing a national grid of feed and fodder banks so that the over 100 crore of farm animals (buffalo, cattle, sheep, goat and poultry) we are fortunate to possess, can help to convert food into nutrition security.

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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