Shortly after returning home from the World Food Prize in 2010, Indian farmer Ravichandran Vanchinathan sent me an email: “TATT has made me realize my social obligation to uplift the lives of the less privileged.”
He had just traveled to Des Moines to participate in the Global Farmer Roundtable, a special project of the Truth about Trade and Technology Foundation (TATT).
In the three years since then, Ravi—as his friends call him—has become a recognized leading advocate of using technology to improve the lives of farmers in his country and elsewhere.
For this achievement, he is this year’s recipient of the Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award. Named for TATT’s longtime chairman Dean Kleckner, the award recognizes “strong leadership, vision, and resolve in advancing the rights of all farmers to choose the technology and tools that will improve the quality, quantity, and availability of agricultural products around the world.”
Ravi grows rice, sugarcane, cotton, and pulses (small grains) on a 60-acre farm at Poongalum village in the state of Tamil Nadu, near the southern tip of India. By American standards, this would make him a small-scale producer. By the standards of his own country, he’s a larger-scale farmer.
I describe Ravi as a cutting-edge farmer, always on the lookout for new ways to improve his farm and the farms of his countrymen. What’s more, he has become one of India’s most consistent and compelling voices for genetically-modified crops as a needed tool-option at a time when India is trying to choose between empowering its farmers through the Gene Revolution and surrendering to a misguided ideology of fear that would prefer to deny farmers the means to participate fully in 21st-century agriculture.
Ravi has used technology to promote technology—he is a constant presence on Twitter (@FarmerRaviVKV) and Facebook and as a commenter on media websites. He post updates from his own field, often with pictures. There’s nothing quite as persuasive as the image of a developing-world farmer standing on his land and telling us that he wouldn’t use biotechnology if it wasn’t safe.
Last weekend, he shared a time-lapse video of adjacent rice paddies—one that was transplanted with Submergence Tolerant Rice, and one without. The comparison showed how technology can help crops survive complete submersion. Ravi pointed out what this means for ordinary people: “During floods, farmers in Bangladesh and India lose up to 4 million tons of rice per year—enough to feed 30 million people.” He went on to offer flood-tolerant seeds to anybody who wants to try them.
Ravi also writes guest columns for TATT, delivering his message to an entirely different, global audience.
“India is a poor country, and sometimes I’m forced to wonder if anti-GM activists want to keep us that way,” wrote Ravi in a column last year. He hailed his government’s decision not to impose a moratorium on GM crops, and called for New Delhi to approve the use of biotechnology in brinjal, a staple crop known in the United States as eggplant. Some signs suggest that with respect to brinjal, India’s leaders may come around to Ravi’s way of thinking.
His message doesn’t end with GM crops. In an April column, he explained why all farmers need access to fertilizer as well as education on its proper use. “Agricultural soil needs a balanced diet,” he wrote. “That’s why fertilizer is so important. It’s the food that feeds the soil.”
Yet powerful forces stand opposed. “It is really unfortunate that the policy makers of our governments seem to rely and be influenced by the vociferous, emotional, illogical outcry by the anti-science activists,” he has said. “Though these activists are anti-science, they are extremely systematic and scientific in their approach in influencing the government politics through their bogus claims and allegations against GM crops.”
This is our opportunity to stand with Ravi, doing what we can to tell our stories in support of a shared vision to help farmers feed the world and eradicate hunger by making the most of technology.
Dean Kleckner, in a personal letter of congratulations to Ravi, offered, “As we recognize the Centennial year of Dr. Borlaug, it is very appropriate to honor an Indian farmer who exemplifies Dr. Borlaug’s humility and tenacity in doing what it needed to get the appropriate technology and tools into the hands of farmers who will make the best use of them.”
Mary Boote serves as CEO for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). V. Ravichandran will be officially recognized as the 2013 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient in Des Moines, Iowa on Tuesday, October 16, 2013.