The gloomy prognosis of Thomas Malthus that population would grow faster than food production was buried by productivity changes in agriculture. The world did not starve despite the population boom. But the Malthusian spectre could now make a comeback for a very contemporary reason: climate change.
In a study published in the 1 February issue of the journal Science, a group of researchers from Stanford University have found that climate change will hurt production of crops worldwide. In South Asia, the study points out, wheat, oilseeds and millet will be hit. In the case of wheat, 95% of the crop models considered showed a negative impact. This is not new. What is new is the constellation of factors that make remedial measures difficult.
The researchers have put forward two recommendations to cope with the problem—investment in new, weather-resistant crop varieties and expansion of irrigation. Both have been tried in India with indifferent results. The proving ground for these strategies, the rainfed areas of eastern India, remains backward in terms of agricultural output.
Even worse, in Punjab and Haryana, the grain powerhouses of India, falling production in the past decade has been blamed on adverse weather patterns. Often, this explanation has more than a grain of truth.
While these changes are unfolding,?agflation,?or?inflation in the prices of agricultural commodities, often fanned by the competitive demands from biofuel, threatens to inflame the situation even further.
The other possible remedy, advocated by the authors of the study—that people should eat differently, shifting from wheat to rice, for example—is easier said than done for cultural reasons.
So, where does India go from here? For starters, the country has time till 2030, the year in which the negative effects are predicted to reach a tipping point, to make appropriate changes. The cold fact is, there is no escape from expansion of irrigation potential in eastern India. The biotic frontier in north-western India has been reached. Due to the extensive use of high-yielding varieties, there is little that expansion of irrigation and fertilizer use can achieve. The way ahead is to couple agrarian reform with innovations in genetic engineering. Science beat Malthusianism the last time, there’s no reason why it can’t be done now.
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