Thursday, June 23, 2011


Is there a single most important factor that is causing price instability for food grains experienced globally since the year 2007? The straight answer is the distorted demand-supply situation with supply lagging behind due to many reasons. Agricultural scientists have done a yeoman service in the past in developing better seed materials and improved cultivation practices which benefited millions of farmers all over the world. Now that there are uncertainties regarding the ability of mankind to double the food production before the end of this century to feed a population of about 10 billion, what lies ahead for humanity in a world with grossly inadequate food supply?

Man's thoughtless past practices have depleted the fossil fuel source, reduced water availability due to overuse, fouled the environment due to heat generating CO2, affected adversely the health of millions because of reckless use of pesticides and destroyed soil health by indiscriminate application of chemical fertilizers. There is no unanimity regarding the exact cause for near stagnation in food production, post-green revolution period but majority agree that abrupt weather changes, unusually high temperature conditions, frequent droughts and flooding have all contributed to this unhappy situation.

Wheat, Rice and Corn provide major calories for human beings and depending on the region one or the other predominates. While rice eating is predominant in Asia, wheat and corn consumption is high in western countries. During the last decade world stock of these food grains has come down to alarming levels due to production-consumption mismatch. Green revolution during nineteen seventies raised dreams of unlimited production of food through technological prowess and it is only now the world is realizing that under the existing conditions and technological base it will never be possible to meet the increasing demand for food through quantum jump in production. The result was dramatic rise in prices of almost all commodities, in some cases by more than 100%, making many countries vulnerable to food riots like the ones that rocked 25 countries a few years ago. Though genetic engineering is being touted as a tool to augment food production, this has not yet been corroborated by any achievements at the ground level.

Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming. Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season in some of the most important agricultural countries, and probably this had significantly reduced the potential yields, which in turn, impacted the price situation. Most recent scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor, climate change is also contributing to the destabilization of the food system, as most crops cannot withstand higher temperature conditions.

There are optimists among the eternal pessimists who feel that all is not lost and there is still time to plan and act to overcome the bleak future painted by many fatalists. Brilliant agricultural scientists, especially breeders have been able to develop varieties of many food crops that can resist drought and flooding but in the absence of adequate financial support they are not able to increase the pace of research to the desired level. Climatologists who never bothered to understand the linkage between food production and the climate change, have been lulled into the belief that increased CO2 level in the atmosphere can only increase the yield but they have been proved wrong by the recent findings that CO2 does not help to any great extent under actual field conditions. Similarly the effect of global warming has never been factored in any planning vis-a-vis food production. If the recent findings of agricultural scientists are taken into reckoning, the food crisis can be tackled effectively if funding for their developmental work is in increased dramatically in the coming years.


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