Thursday, March 12, 2009


Serious concern is being expressed about the ability of this planet to sustain itself till the end of the current century. Number one concern is whether adequate food will be available to avoid large scale starvation. Some knowledgeable people assert that it is not a question of availability that pose the threat but it is the wide disparities in purchasing power amongst the population that will make it difficult to ensure equitable distribution of what is available in sufficient quantities. In support of this it is claimed that current food production, arithmetically, can provide every person with 2800 kC to make them over weight and in 2 decades due to population decline, the food available at that time will be sufficient to supply 3050 kC per capita!. In contrast international agencies like FAO, World Bank and many others predict large scale starvation in coming years due to declining agricultural productivity and food production in many parts of the world. Added to this is the worry that global environment is increasingly becoming dangerous affecting the over all quality of life.

The alarm signal is set off by the burgeoning population, led by Asian, African and South American continents, with relatively less per capita income, increasing poverty and declining agriculture productivity. A daunting figure of 9 billion is being projected as the likely population by the year 2050. To provide adequate nourishment to this incremental population, the world food production may have to double within the next 40 years which calls for dramatic break through in agriculture, much beyond the current level of thinking. It is estimated that the global food reserve has come down from 585 million tons (mt) in 1999, adequate for 115 days of survival to 309 mt in 2007, just sufficient to meet the needs for 54 days. Food grain production has taken a beating during last year plummeting to 2075 million tons from the previous year's 2098 million tons, necessitating dipping into the already depleted food reserves.

It is true that newer technologies like genetic engineering have contributed to increased productivity from the land, especially in the developed countries. The well established production regimes for genetically modified crops like maize and soybean are increasingly being adopted but these crops are finding their way into production of bio-fuels and live stock feeds with very little positive impact on the food front. Lack of sustained interest in developing high yield versions of rice, wheat, oil seeds and legumes through biotechnology route is telling on the stagnant/declining productivity of these staples during the last few years. It must be remembered that more than 3 billion people about 50% of world population, are rice eaters and no private bio-tech players seem to be interested in investing on staples such as this because of limited market potential for innovations as the most of the growers are concentrated in poor countries with low purchasing power.

Instead of expanding areas of cultivation to cope up with emerging demand, there appears to be decline in cultivable land for food due to anthropogenic climate changes, live stock raising practices and bio-fuel production. More than half of the Amazon deforestation is being swallowed by large scale cultivation of agricultural crops for animal feeds. World is ignoring the fact that mindless expansion of livestock production to satisfy the insatiable demand for meat is causing rapid deterioration of the environment through massive greenhouse gas emission. 18% of global emission is accounted for by the livestock production which must be curtailed if global warming is to be arrested. Agriculture in countries like Brazil, Australia and New Zealand with vast stresses of land devoted to industrial livestock and feedstock agribusiness is found to be responsible for more than 50% of greenhouse gas emission, outdoing the carbon impact of emissions from cars, planes and coal fired power plants.

The African continent presents a stark picture of what has gone wrong in the food front in many impoverished countries in the world. 75% of world's ultra poor people live in this region with hardly 50 cents per day income. Population is increasing uncontrollably while agricultural productivity was falling during the last 30 years and food demand far outstrips the domestic supply. In 1970 most countries in this region were net exporters of food whereas now many of them are net importers. Because of continuous cultivation and large scale mining during the last 6 decades, every bit of nutrients has been drained out without any effort for replenishment. It is estimated that, if US levels of yield can be transferred, East Africa can double the current productivity, in South Asia it can be tripled and in sub-Saharan Africa productivity can be raised five-fold. Hybrid seeds, fertilizers and appropriate pesticides combined with introduction of drought resistant, water saving, heat tolerant and salt tolerant technologies can dramatically change the continent, provided large scale investments are forthcoming.

The future of this planet lies in moderating the wants of the inhabitants, all round efforts to stem the global warming and sharing equitably the resources that are at our disposal. Peace and prosperity in Asia, South America and Africa can only ensure peace in other parts of the World also. No nation can live in isolation imagining its wealth can insulate it from the turmoil around due to poverty and deprivation amongst its co-inhabitants.


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