As a farmer’s organization, one is constantly challenging the conventional wisdom, which is unanimously agreed upon by even those who disagree on possibly everything else. The palpable fear of food insecurity that has been ingrained in Indian minds; perhaps with some justification given the country’s history of food shortage and famine in this case.
The famine of 1770 affected north India leading to millions of deaths. The East India Company had destroyed food crops, forcing farmers to grow indigo plants for dye, along with opium poppy; it increased the tax on agricultural produce from 10 per cent to 50 per cent; it also banned stockpiling of rice. The seasonal food shortage caused by drought was quickly worsened and converted into a famine.
In 1798 AD, Thomas Robert Malthus wrote in ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ that: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, which basically meant that population growth could not sustained. The Bengal famine of 1943 killed upwards of three million. Churchill as prime minister of England had ordered food to be taken from India to build stockpiles (not consumed) for allied troops fighting World War II.
As India changed policies during the Second Five Year Plan, food shortage here became so severe in the 1960s that Lal Bhadur Shastri had to ask the people to skip one meal a week so that food was available for the masses. Foodgrain from the USA was sent directly to the hinterland where no food was available in a phenomenon that was termed ‘Ship to Mouth’. William and Paul Paddock wrote a book in 1967 that became very popular: ‘Famine 1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive?’
It was then suggested that nations like India were so hopeless that USA’s aid would be a wastage. The advice was that such nations that “can’t-be-saved nations” should be left to their fate; to die of starvation. Another ill-informed and short-sighted economist, who became very famous, Paul R. Ehrlich, wrote a bestseller, The Population Bomb, arriving at the same conclusions as Malthus and Paddock.
Most of those who today decide how the ordinary Indians live their lives — whether they be policymakers, economists, scientists and politicians — were bought up in such trying times, reading, studying and being influenced by such literature. Today, at one end of the spectrum there are academics who constantly seek to validate their own ingrained fear of India’s inability to grow enough food. At the other end are agriculture input companies, commodity firms, speculators, traders and NGOs that have incorporated food fears into their business model for profiteering.
Between the two ends they manage to create, what can be called, the “fatal forecasting’ phenomenon for the farm sector. So deeply have they managed to seed this that the entire and massive scheme of trade, public distribution and work-for-food programmes, technology and farm interventions, whereby food production and availability increased substantially, has failed to make a dent the sense of insecurity.
Matters have worsened over time with new dangers becoming apparent; the consequences of climate change. Doubling production by 2050 to meet the demand of 9.2 billion people is thus a daunting task. Yet, even conceding these realities, possibilities exist as would be apparent from the yield gap between research centres and the best farm in any village and between best and worst farms in a village.
Simply taking focused measures to bridge these gaps will increase yield by 20 per cent. Availability and utilization of better sowing and harvesting machinery will increase yield by another 20 per cent. There is also the case for increasing the scope of farming: 70 per cent of the earth is covered in oceans but only two per cent of the food comes from oceans. This two per cent from the oceans provides 16 per cent of world’s protein requirement. Yet not just fish, even sea weeds are untapped.
The impact of new technologies like ‘genome editing’ is not fully understood but the potential is undenied. Increasing photosynthesis in plants that consume about one per cent of sunlight or improving plant uptake of nutrients from about 40 per cent at present is a possibility. The animal food economy takes up 30 per cent land and 50 per cent fresh water as 10 kgs of calories required to make one kg of meat emerges as the real killer.
Yet disruption is the name of the game. In 20 years there will be meat on the table made from plant extracts or laboratory grown meat that will have the taste and texture of real meat. This disruptive idea will free land and water for other use. Only three crops provide 66 per cent of the food requirement: wheat, corn and rice. Even these three crops are not utilized properly or entirely and there are 50,000 edible plants to choose from.
Disruption would mean diversifying diets to beat the odds. Today, 30 per cent of the food is wasted and this can be reduced to less than 10 per cent. That means more food on the table without adding more land or inputs. Essentially, mankind and certainly India have interpreted the nature of the problem incorrectly..
India has never run out of food in the last 10,000 years nor will it do so in the distant future. Food insecurity is a factor of human habits and choices, it is a problem of availability and access but not the inability of the planet to sustain its people. There is a history of underestimating human ingenuity.
India is not as naturally endowed with environmental assets as other nations. It has only two per cent of the arable land and two per cent of the world’s water to feed 16 per cent of the world population. The country’s challenges are more daunting than those facing large parts of the world. Therefore the urgency to set things right.
More importantly, there is need for a new matrix to measure growth and security. The most important investment should be made in calculating the true cost of food. Without knowing the true cost of food, policymakers cannot make informed choices and investments. The bottomline, given this failure, is that government policies made by nations, including India, are out of sync with stated government objectives.