Tuesday, August 30, 2011


It is a fact that by the year 2050 world must gear up to "manage" a population that is double the present figure and the most critical issue is whether such a huge population can be fed adequately, at least at the present level. That the current food production may appear to be adequate from a Statistician's point of view, may give some solace to the planners but at the ground level the gap between rich and the poor is too wide with those at the lowest economic strata living in poverty with insufficient economic capacity to buy adequate foods needed to live normally. While increasing food production can be achieved through innovative technologies, enhancing the buying capacity of families can be brought about by economic development only.

As far as food production is concerned, the only major governmental effort which garnered global appreciation was the "Green Revolution" that achieved quantum jump in food production in nineteen sixties and seventies and even to day one can hear planners talking about a second green revolution for meeting increased demand for foods by the expanding population. Though green revolution has been lauded for its impact on the food front, a serious issue that has generated lot of concerns is the way it was achieved. Because of the input intensive technologies used and the changes in the traditional agricultural practices, the soil health seems to have suffered seriously with some experts saying that it would take years to rehabilitate the agricultural lands affected which has serious repercussions. Nonetheless, the efforts by governmental research or public funded and controlled developments ensured that the needed technologies were disseminated amongst the farming community easily without any major hitch.

According to some reports research investments in agriculture supported by the public funds are either stagnant or actually dwindling while that in private sector is growing phenomenally at a robust pace. What are the implications implicit in this trend? If one hears about GM foods too often it is because of the dominance of a few large private players who control the technologies through the intellectual property regime under the WTO protocols. It is true that genetic engineering tool is very efficient in creating new foods with better resistance against field diseases that account for a significant loss of foods, unaffordable to a world crying for increased food production. Without entering into the debate about the safety of genetically modified foods, it is suffice to say that the new technologies available to day cannot reach the needy farmers who cannot afford them because of cost considerations. The critical question that arises is whether the world can afford to ignore the poorer countries where most agricultural lands are located, by denying them access to new privately controlled technologies?

The agricultural community in many countries is dwindling because it is not as profitable as it used to be and there is massive migration of agricultural families into urban areas seeking better fortunes and living quality. If such a trend is not arrested there is possibility that vast stretches of land may remain fallow without being cultivated for food crops, further affecting the food supply adversely. The Indian phenomenon of farmer suicides is due to the unprofitable nature of agricultural avocation and unbearable debt burden for the farmers on account of ever escalating input costs. To some extent GOI deserves some appreciation for the economic subsidies and support extended to the farmers but there is always the question regarding the effectiveness of the current policies vis-a-vis poor farmers and this calls for a deep introspection.

In many countries in the West there is a marked downward trend in public funded agricultural research leaving the field open to private investors. The growth of private research funding is 100% more than that in the public sector and considering that more than 80% of future increase in food production has to come from the existing land, new and innovative technologies have to emerge to achieve such quantum jump in crop yields. This calls for sustained investment in research by the governments and results of only such efforts can be disseminated to the agricultural community with no economic burden to them. Private sector developers cannot be expected to invest in research efforts that will not bring them returns and their target users are always big companies and super rich farmers who can afford to pay for the technology. Ideally the IPO regime should not be made applicable to agriculture considering the need for achieving quantum increase in food production and some mechanism has to be evolved to make technological improvements freely available to all the farmers, big as well as small ones.


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