Science-based improvements in agricultural technology have been at the forefront of alleviating hunger and poverty. The first Green Revolution that started in the 1960s, GR1.0, converted India from being a basket case to a bread basket.
The science of GR1.0 basically built high-yielding semi-dwarf rice and wheat plant architecture adapted to low-stress environments, which benefited mostly farmers in favourable irrigated areas. The science of GR2.0, the second Green Revolution, has gone one better by ‘leaving no farmer behind’, especially poor rice farmers growing their crop in marginal environments.
GR2.0 in rice started in 2008 when farmers began adopting flood-tolerant rice, which can withstand total submergence for more than two weeks. Since then, these Sub1 varieties—named after the Sub1 gene discovered and deployed by the International Rice Research Institute and Indian scientists—have spread in eastern India and other regions where flooding is a perennial problem.
Around 2030, GR3.0 will commence when farmers start planting yield-plateau-busting C4 and nitrogen-fixing rice. These varieties will be extraordinarily environmentally friendly as, to produce higher yield, they will need half the amount of water and nitrogen currently used. However, this vision could be delayed or thwarted altogether.
The anti-science, anti-technology and anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) movements hindering the use of transgenic crops in India, such as Bt brinjal and pro-vitamin A-fortified Golden Rice (GR), are having a chilling effect on students who are now wondering if they should devote any time at all to studying agriculture and biology.
India is home to the world’s largest population of vitamin A-deficient (VAD) people, most of whom are pregnant women and children. For more than a decade, the IRRI has had a close relationship with the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, the Indian Institute of Rice Research in Hyderabad and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in developing GR varieties adapted to local conditions. One hopes policymakers will allow this crop to proceed and not suffer the same fate as Bt brinjal.
When one considers the large amount of pesticides applied to brinjal in India, the release of the Bt version would bring tremendous environmental benefits. Its availability would be a health benefit to farmers, economically attractive to them, and a big win for the environment. Consumers won’t have to eat brinjal with pesticide residue on it.
Interestingly, Bangladesh approved Bt brinjal based on the data generated in India. Many countries, like India, already have rigorous approval processes for genetically engineered products, crops, food, etc. Countries in South Asia could mutually recognise those approval processes, much as they recognise the food standards in the Codex Alimentarius rather than insisting that each test be repeated locally.
In October 2014, agriculture ministries of India, Bangladesh and Nepal signed an agreement to fast-track the release of any rice variety undergoing proper evaluation protocols in any one of their countries. India has already directly released four rice varieties from Bangladesh and two from Nepal for Indian farmers growing rice in similar agroecologies. The poor are depending on scientists and policymakers to work together. We really don’t have time to keep reinventing the wheel.
This blog was first published in The Economic Times 05 June 2015