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Science versus drought

Science versus drought
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First Published: Sun, Aug 16 2009. 09 05 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Aug 16 2009. 09 05 PM IST
News that India may suffer a weaker than normal monsoon this year is raising concerns about crop yields and food supply. As worrying as these reports are, however, this is only a short-term element of a much bigger problem with the availability of water in the country. Even when the rains do come, India’s water usage will still be at unsustainable levels. Better crop plants that use water more efficiently could be a big part of the solution—if only bureaucrats and activists would get out of the way.
India is the world’s second largest producer of cotton, the thirstiest of crops: It takes 11,000 litres of water to produce a single kilogram. In just one example of the consequences, consumption from irrigation and other human uses is depleting groundwater in north-western India despite consistent rainfall levels, according to an article published in the British journal Nature.
The results of this research should get policymakers to focus on how water is being used. The introduction of plants that grow with less water would allow more to be freed up for other uses. Plant biologists have identified genes regulating water utilization that can be transferred into important crop plants. Some modifications allow plants to grow with less or lower-quality water.
Pest- and disease-resistant strains also indirectly help water efficiency. Because much of the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully grown—that is, after most of the water required to grow a crop has already been applied—the use of crop varieties that experience lower post-harvest losses in yield means that the farming and irrigation of fewer plants can produce the same total amount of food. Around 13 million farmers in at least 25 countries are already using genetically modified crop varieties to produce higher yields with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment. In 2008, India ranked fourth in the world in cultivation of genetically modified crops, with 7.6 million ha.
But research and development are being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation. There are at least a dozen vocal and radical activist groups around the world opposed to this kind of technology. They have concocted tales in developing countries about genetically modified crops causing homosexuality, impotence, illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and even baldness. One of the most vocal activists is New Delhi-based Vandana Shiva, who denies not only the manifest benefits and potential of genetically modified crops, but even derides the 20th century’s stellar Green Revolution as having inflicted violence on the environment.
This pressure both encourages over-regulation in response to questionable science and offers cover to those who want to over-regulate these crops for other reasons. The UN agency that sets international food standards has established requirements that are hugely expensive—and that could not be met by any food derived from conventionally modified plants. The Cartagena “biosafety protocol”, crafted under the aegis of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has created unscientific and burdensome regulations of field trials and transport of genetically modified organisms.
Meanwhile, governments interested in protecting their agricultural sectors from foreign competition are all too happy to use spurious fears over genetically modified crops to erect trade barriers. Witness the EU’s unscientific, protectionist restrictions on the import of genetically modified products.
Water scarcity has the potential to destabilize industrialized and developing countries alike. It hinders economic development; excessive water extraction lowers ground levels and exacerbates rising sea levels; and poor water quality makes populations vulnerable to water-related diseases. Especially during drought conditions, even a small reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits.
Some of the planet’s biggest drought fears may be in India today, but no one will be immune to water worries in the future. It’s essential that bureaucrats and activists stop blocking technologies that can give us more crop for the drop.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Henry I. Miller is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of The Frankenfood Myth (2004). Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Aug 16 2009. 09 05 PM IST