Maybe they should call it International Geographic.
Although it’s headquartered in the United States, National Geographic is a global publication. For more than 25 years, I’ve read it here in India, where it has a good reputation. I still keep a few old issues because of their interesting articles and excellent photography.
I’m pleased to see that the magazine has launched a special series on “The Future of Food.” As a farmer in a nation that struggles with food security, I spend a lot of my time thinking—and worrying—about this topic.
In the May issue, the editors of National Geographic describe their mission: “By 2050 we’ll need to feed two billion more people. This special eight-month series explores how we can do that—without overwhelming the planet.”
Feeding the world may be the greatest challenge of our young century. For me, this is not a theoretical problem. Every day, I see the enormous problems where I live, in the village of Ulundhai in south India. It’s a crisis I witness with my own eyes.
I also recognize hidden opportunities. With the hope of contributing to the conversation that National Geographic has started, I would like to offer a few humble observations about soil health and technology.
First and foremost, we must sustain the fertility of the soil. Everything we grow depends upon its well-being. This is a big task, and it has plenty of components—including the defeat of illiteracy, which prevents too many developing country farmers from fertilizing their fields properly.
With healthy soil, we can begin to address the basic problems of the food supply. The Green Revolution transformed agriculture in India, but in recent years we’ve hit a plateau. Growth in food production has fallen behind growth in population. Hundreds of millions of my fellow Indians are hungry or malnourished; the state of India’s food-security is worsening by the year.
Thankfully, we have lots of room for improvement. Our yields are only a fraction of what farmers in developed countries routinely achieve. Simply catching up to much of the rest of the world will go a long way toward meeting India’s food-security demands.
In fact, we should be even more productive than leading agriculture nations. In the American Midwest, home to some of the richest soil in the world, most farmers grow only one crop per year. Not even the blackest earth will produce food when a white blanket of snow sits on top of it.
India doesn’t have this problem. Where I live, we never see snow—and we can grow multiple crops in a single year. I follow a three-crop rotation every year: rice or maize, followed by vegetables, followed by oil seeds and pulses.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we knew how to sustain the fertility of the soil and make the most of our potential.
The other vital tool is technology – the best seeds for the healthiest soil. It is clear that we need crop protection technologies and tools to narrow the vast gap in crop productivity between developed and developing countries. This includes access to genetically modified crops. Farmers in the United States and elsewhere can depend upon the unique ability of these plants to overcome the weeds and pests that thwart farmers everywhere.
National Geography seemed reluctant to discuss this essential option in its May issue. The lead article—“A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World”—said virtually nothing about GM crops. Yet they are the need of the hour, and National Geographic should use its prestige and expertise to combat the phony controversies and outright falsehoods that surround biotechnology.
I don’t grow GM crops on my 65-acre farm; however, I am aware that the aspect of GM crops for food and fibre production with emphasis on disease resistance and quality improvement need to be taken on a case by case basis to meet the needs of the Indian farmers. I would love to benefit from the disease resistance and yield increases that have transformed and improved agriculture wherever they’ve been adopted. Yet my country’s agriculture remains stuck in the 20th century, beset by political activists who fail to understand the science behind this safe technology.
Unfortunately, farming in India is widely considered a lowly occupation, which is the main reason for the low productivity of even the existing crops. I strongly feel we need to have more demonstration and training farms to create awareness about soil fertility and GM technology. It’s not the farmer who makes the food: Food is made by plants. I believe we need to learn that instead of subsidizing food supply for the people, the plants need subsidized food such as fertilizers and other inputs in order for them to produce the food needed for food security for the family and India.
As National Geographic continues its exploration of “The Future of Food,” I hope that it will discover the solutions we all need.
R. Madhavan grows three different crops a year on his farm near Ulundhai Village, Tamil Nadu, India. Madhavan has several patents for farmer-friendly farm tools, conducts workshops that encourage entrepreneurs to take up agriculture as a profession and is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).