India needs a second Green Revolution for food security

India needs a second Green Revolution for food security

New Delhi: India needs a second Green Revolution to boost food supplies, or its 1.1 billion people will face huge social turmoil, the country’s top farm scientist has warned.

The government has identified agriculture as a key area for economic reform and called for changes to boost output of staples such as wheat, rice, pulses and vegetables and bring down soaring food prices.

But so far there has been “no sign of major steps to make that happen", said Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, Rajya Sabha member and architect of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which quadrupled food production and made India self-sufficient.

“What we need is political action — we need politicians to ‘walk the talk’," Swaminathan, 82, said. “If we don’t succeed, we will face tremendous social problems," he said.

Swaminathan, a plant geneticist whose ideas helped transform India from a starving nation into a food exporter, runs the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, which looks for ways to create new farm technologies.

Policymakers globally now are grappling with how to tackle fast-rising food prices and dwindling stocks, with food riots erupting in some countries.

India’s agriculture has been in decline in recent years and growing at a far slower pace than the overall economy. In 2006, it was forced to import grain for the first time in years, ringing alarm bells about food security. Some two-thirds of its population still live off agriculture, which grows about 3% a year. That is less than half the 8% economic expansion forecast by the government for the financial year to March 2009.

Swaminathan won his doctorate in genetics from Britain’s Cambridge University, but turned down a US professorship when he realized he had studied to “produce enough food" in post-independence India and “serve the nation".

Memories were still fresh of the Great Bengal Famine, the world’s worst-recorded food disaster, which occurred in 1943, when Britain governed India and an estimated four million people died of hunger.

Now a burgeoning population, a growing middle class with more purchasing power, and erratic weather are among factors creating food scarcity, thus pushing prices up and requiring a new agricultural leap forward, Swaminathan said.

“We need to take advantage of the existing technology bank. There’s a large amount of technology out there not being used — in efficient water use, efficient fertilizer use, in extension of farmer-to-farmer knowledge," he added.

For instance, nearly 70% of India’s farmers still depend on rain because of a lack of proper irrigation. “Storage of food supplies is (still) a big issue," Swaminathan said, with many crops being devoured by rats before humans can eat them.

Swaminathan said India faced a much tougher challenge in producing a second Green Revolution than it did in the 1960s, when too many hungry bellies forced it to live a “ship-to-mouth" existence, depending on US foodgrain imports to stave off famine.

“Politics is much more complicated these days," he said, referring to the unruly national coalition governments that are often at odds with state administrations.

“The prime minister, who was then Indira Gandhi, had authority over the entire country" to make sure decisions were implemented, he said.

Gandhi gave Swaminathan free rein to implement a new agricultural programme, believing it vital for India to be able to feed itself.

“I’ve been trying for a pan-political approach to produce a second Green Revolution—after all we all have to eat first," Swaminathan said, adding he was optimistic India could achieve the goal.

“Crisis is a mother of invention. We faced a crisis in the 1960s and we succeeded."