Cyclone Phailin smashed into the eastern coast of India on Sunday, leaving a path of death and destruction whose toll is still being calculated. The devastation from winds that averaged more than 120 miles per hour probably would have been worse if the government hadn’t ordered the evacuation of roughly 800,000 people, one of the biggest in history.
I missed the brunt of the storm. My farm lies to the south of the cyclone’s path, and I’ve also been traveling to the United States to participate in Global Farmer Roundtable at the World Food Prize conference. I’m grateful and honored to accept this year’s Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement Award—a high honor in its own right, and perhaps an even higher one as we approach the centennial year of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution and a man whose pioneering work in agriculture saved over a billion lives.
As much as I appreciate the opportunity to visit Des Moines, many of my thoughts are with the people back home. While deadlier tempests have thrashed their way across India throughout my country’s history, Cyclone Phailin has caused significant damage.
The Indian Meteorological Department has warned of extensive agricultural damage. The decimation will make life even harder for the small-scale farmers who toil on more than 90 percent of India’s farmland. They have an important job to do: They must grow the food that feeds the world’s second most populous nation.
Yet cyclones are not our most troubling problem. Indian agriculture faces challenges on too many fronts to count.
Rapid urbanization is taking farmland out of food production, pushing farmhands to move from villages to towns and cities in search of alternative employment. Young Indians increasingly resist careers in agriculture because they believe other jobs lead to more personal prosperity.
To make matters worse, the cost of cultivation keeps going up. Pests, weeds, and disease pose constant threats. Poor infrastructure, including a lack of storage facilities, puts our crops at risk even after successful harvests.
Climate change is having a bad influence as well: Cyclone Phailin has dumped an enormous amount of rain on India, but last year we had almost drought like conditions in many parts of India. The success or failure of our farming is monsoon dependent. The monsoons that traditionally provide normal levels of precipitation have become less dependable and we don’t have precise weather prediction which would enable us to plan our farming strategy.
All of this puts our food security at risk. In a nation of more than 1 billion citizens, the stakes are high indeed.
If we’re going to be serious about producing more food on less land, then India must embrace agricultural biotechnology as part of the solution.
We’ve already learned through experience about the benefits of genetically modified cotton. The success story of Bt cotton stands as a testimony for the robustness of the technology. More than 90 percent of India’s cotton farmers now use biotechnology because they’ve seen how it works. We need to adopt the same type of technology to other crops, just as the United States and so many of the other countries in the western hemisphere and elsewhere have done.
A logical first step is approval of GM brinjal—something that may happen soon, in the wake of Bangladesh’s decision to permit the commercialization of this staple food (known to many others as eggplant). Yet we can’t stop with a single plant. Just as Norman Borlaug sparked the Green Revolution, we must launch a Gene Revolution that harnesses the power of technology to grow more food.
We must direct our research effort to breed and develop climate resilient crops. Researchers are already developing flood-resistant crops, which can survive submersion longer than conventional crops—an important and useful trait in a land vulnerable to cyclones. Paradoxically, we also need to look into drought resistance, so that we’re ready for any eventuality. And in India’s vast coastal belts the soil is turning saline due to sea water ingression making salinity tolerant crops a needed tool. The list is endless.
There is no magic formula. It is possible only through adoption of scientifically proven, well-established technologies. Even then, technology won’t solve all of our problems. Many of Indian agriculture’s biggest obstacles are political rather than scientific. Decisions on farm technologies must be based only on their scientific merits and not on the basis of political science.
We, the farmers, besides earning for our families, have the social responsibility of feeding our populations with enough food and driving away hunger. We must abandon the ignorance and fear that has caused India to resist biotechnology. The time has come to embrace its promise wholeheartedly, and let India’s farmers achieve food security by growing more food than ever before. Whatever challenges we face, I am confident we can drive away hunger and malnutrition from our planet if India’s farmers are empowered to use the scientifically-proven technologies they choose.
The confidence placed in me by Truth About Trade & Technology encourages me to dedicate myself with renewed vigor in the encouragement and support of my fellow farmers. We must – we will – stand together.
Mr. V. Ravichandran owns a 60 acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains). Mr. Ravichandran is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and is the 2013 recipient of the Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.