"We are close to crisis point"

Agriculture and its subsequent effect on the environment, rapidly depleting natural resources like arable land and water, the slackening of the green revolution and the loomingprospect offeeding India's growing population have been the subject of intense debate. R S PARoDA, director-general, Indian Council ofAgricultural Research (ICAR) and secretary, department of agricultural research and education, government ofIndia, talks to INDIRA KHURANA about how the government proposes to meet the challenges ahead

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

On India's goal of achieving food security:
We are confident of providing food security. Currently, the growth rate of foodgrain production is 2.8 per cent as against two per cent population growth. Current concerns centre more around the access to food; it is more of a socioeconomic problem rather than of production. We are now emphasising on household nutrition security. In India, nearly 100 million children below five years of age suffer from protein deficiency and we are attacking this problem by making efforts towards diversification in terms of cereals and pulses so that the diet is complete.

On meeting food requirement during the Ninth Five Year Plan:
For the Ninth Five Year Plan, we have worked out the food requirement as 7-8 million tonnes per annum for which we require a growth rate of 3.5 per cent. To achieve that, we will have to raise productivity by extending the available technologies and providing infrastructure to areas that were not covered in the 1970s and early 1980s (by the green revolution).

On increasing production in green revolution areas:
For areasthat have attained their maximum potential by using 'green revolution technologies', we plan to increase the use of hybrid seeds (of crops like rice, cotton, maize, castor, and sunflower) from the current 20 per cent to about 50 per cent. The phytotron facility (a controlled environmental research facility that helps overcome environmental constraints of seasons and locations by facilitating faster development of better varieties and efficient crop management, particularly, in low productivity areas) that we have recently comrnissioned, will go a long way in speeding up research and developing technologies.

On sustainability of agriculture:
The degree of destruction of resources indicates that we are already close to crisis point. We have to depend less on natural resources and shift from a resource-based system to a science-based system of agriculture. We are going in for integrated plant nutrient management and integrated pest management. This technology cannot be promoted just by extension workers (who introduce modern technologies, seeds and agricultural practices to farmers) alone, A ;nore serious and collaborative effort in the form of a participatory farmers' movement along with the extension workers is required. Farmers have to be educated. We are now emphasising on resource conservation, green manuring, vermiculture and mixed cultivation, which can, for example, result in nitrogen saving by alternating cereal cultivation with legumes.

On human resource development (HRD) in ICAR:
Every year, we produce 10,000 agricultural scientists. We still attract good quality students. We have started a country-wide agricultural HRD development programme funded by the World Bank, with a thrust in areas of futuristic importance - environment, biotechnology, geographical information systems and others. On international collaborations for research and training programmes:
We have a memorandum of understanding with 13 out of the 16 centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research for HRD. Unfortunately, there has been some kind of stagnation in this field because the external support available during the 1970s has declined over the years. Meanwhile, with the growing educational opportunities in agricultural sciences in India, people tended to complete their education in a single university, (as a result), a kind of complacency has set in. We are now taking remedial steps to develop HRD through our own support, since it is these scientists who will have to face the challenges ahead.

On tackling frustration amongst ICAR's scientists:
Scientists will no longer be frustrated. We are now offering a number of incentives in the form of consultancy and research contract and other awards and rewards.

On the role of biotechnology in agriculture and its potential risks to the environment:
Biotechnology should not be seen as an alternative but as a complementary approach to existing technologies. It accelerates processes and reduces the time lag required for traditional methods. Genetic barriers faced by traditional breeding techniques can be crossed. It has, however, to be used judiciously. The role of biotechhology in agriculture cannot be totally discarded. After all, we have been transferring desired genes by selective cross-breed- ing. What is of concern, is the introduction of genes foreign to that particular species, like microbes, animals and insects. We have to then carefully evaluate the impact of such a gene in the context of its performance vis-a-vis its possible adverse effects.

On the conservation of genetic resources and agroblodiversity:
India is one of the richest areas of biodiversity. Conservation is of prime importance. It can be on site or in gene banks. ICAR has great concern for agrobiodiversity. We have bureaux for the conservation of plants, ani- mals and fish genetic resources. We also have a bureau for soil use and survey. In the ninth Five Year Plan, we plan to start a bureau for conservation of microbes of agricultural importance.

On the funding of gene banks:
We will look for funds gradually. Some of the services offered by the plant gene bank like quarantine, will be commercialised. We also plan to offer facilities available to neighbouring countries at a cost. The design of the gene bank is such that the cost of maintenance is minimised.

On the challenges ahead:
At present, the emphasis will be on pro- viding nutrition security, increase production by using less resources and on bringing in more area under production in as much a sustainable way as possible.

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