Half a century is a long time, but that’s how long I’ve been thinking seriously about India’s struggle with food security—and how technology can help to solve it.
My earliest memories about food security date back to the 1960s, when I was a student in my village’s primary school. All the children would stand in a serpentine queue, holding metal plates and waiting for their turn to receive scoops of upma, a porridge-like food that’s popular in the southern part of my country.
The main ingredient in this dish was wheat imported from the United States as part of an aid program. Although India had plenty of farmland, we were living a ship-to-mouth life. We depended on the generosity of foreigners to help us feed ourselves. Without this assistance, many of us would have starved.
The crisis was so grave that our Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, urged Indians to give up one meal per week. He took the lead by starting the practice in his own family. My parents followed his example, forfeiting their main meal on Mondays.
Then came the Green Revolution—and it changed everything.
In the midst of our food emergency, India enjoyed a record wheat harvest. Credit belongs to Norman Borlaug, the American biologist who revolutionized crop science and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, plus Indian geneticist M.S. Swaminathan and Agriculture Minister C. Subramaniyan. Together, they introduced new wheat varieties to my country. Because of them, we had a lot more food.
Wheat country is in the north. I live in the south—and our introduction to the Green Revolution came through improved forms of rice, which is a staple food for at least half of India’s people.
Before the Green Revolution, my father’s rice yield seldom rose above 1.5 tons per hectare. This was a typical result for traditional farmers—and despite their best efforts, it just wasn’t enough to feed the people of India.
Then came the miracle rice, also known as IR8. American crop breeders Peter Jennings and Hank Beachell developed it—and then everything changed. Suddenly, our rice grew stronger stalks, matured more rapidly, and sprouted more panicles than leaves.
Best of all, our farms produced more food—a tenfold increase in yield.
My father was one of the first farmers to cultivate IR8. In the growing season of 1967-68, farmers from all over came to gaze in wonder at this new crop. As they arrived, my father welcomed them and showed them what he was doing. He always said that these visitors couldn’t believe their eyes. The difference between the old forms of rice and the new forms was too good to be true. His brother—my uncle—was awarded a shield by the Minister of Agriculture for achieving the highest yield.
When the wife of a rice farmer in Thiruvannamalai gave birth on harvest day—a double boon of a child and a big yield of IR8 rice—they named their son Iryettu, which is the Tamil name for IR8. That’s how popular IR8 was at the time of its introduction.
Thanks to the Green Revolution, we don’t skip meals on Monday anymore. Yet India has not solved the challenge of food security. Our population continues to grow and malnutrition is a major problem, contributing to infant mortality. Children who survive often suffer lifelong health problems, such as vitamin-A deficiency, which causes eye disease and even blindness.
A new kind of rice—Golden Rice—would confront the problem of vitamin-A deficiency and possibly even solve it. Just as the Green Revolution of the 20th century transformed farming in developing nations like India, the Gene Revolution of our own time holds incredible promise.
Genetic modification would deliver other desirable traits, such as the ability of crops to survive floods. In 2015, the northeast monsoon brought incessant rain to my farm, submerging my rice for more than a week. They were completely underwater. I was fortunate, however, because I had planted submergence-tolerant Swarna-Sub1—and a stress factor that hurt many other farmers had no effect on my yield.
We have other needs as well. Coastal farmers would benefit from salinity-tolerant rice. People everywhere would gain from other kinds of rice: iron-rich rice, rice that releases minimal amounts of methane, and low glycemic rice for diabetics like me. The list is endless.
In too many places, however, we’re denying ourselves a new wave of miracle crops for reasons that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics.
We said yes to the Green Revolution, but we’re saying no to the Gene Revolution—not because of legitimate safety concerns, but out of ignorance and ideology.
We must overcome these fears—and make sure the next 50 years enjoy as much progress as the half century that I’ve just lived through.
This column is a version of the winning essay from the 50 years of IR8 contest.