GM crops, the answer to climate change

Shivendra Bajaj | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on May 24, 2017

Monsoon blues Indian farmer’s life depends on the rain event   -  KK Mustafah

Drought-resistant alternatives to rice and sugarcane need to be considered in increasingly water-scarce India

The IMD forecast of a near normal monsoon brings some cheer. However, effects of the El Nino may have an adverse effect towards the tail end of the rain-bearing season. The normal monsoon in 2016 helped India, reeling from two consecutive droughts, come back from the brink and also helped take food-grain output to a new high.

However, the benefits were primarily limited to the north, west and eastern parts of the country. The south was left dry. States such as Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry have already gone and declared themselves as drought-affected. Kerala and Karnataka are contemplating actions such as cloud seeding to tide over the situation.

In Kerala, for example, the S-W monsoon deficit stood at 34 per cent, and the North-East monsoon was at 61 per cent. In Tamil Nadu, the deficits were 19 per cent and 62 per cent (North-East monsoon). For coastal Karnataka, the shortfall stood at 21 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively.

In Kerala, the drought, considered by locals to be the worst in over a century, has led to wilting of cardamom, coffee and pepper crops, the key cash crops of the State. Reports also suggest that this has not only affected the output of agriculture and allied sectors, but has also triggered drinking water shortage.

Market economy challenges

Farmers are no longer content to grow crops that are necessarily suited to their ecosystem. A case in point is a water-intensive crop such as sugarcane being grown in the Marathwada region, a high drought prone region. A farmer is less likely to grow millets which are well known to be hardy and drought-resistant and would much rather bet on a higher paying crop such as sugarcane for example or other cash crops. Not just Maharashtra. Let’s look at other States as well.

Ragi (finger millet) was more suited to the Mandya region of Karnataka but farmers shifted to more remunerative but water-intensive paddy and sugarcane crops post 1970. Such variance in crops and agro-climatic zones is evident across India and began after the green revolution in the early 1960s.

The betterment of living standards due to rising incomes and a growing economy generally leads to three important shifts in agriculture: (i) reduced focus on cereal crops and a greater diversification to fruits, vegetables,other cash crops and livestock; (ii) shift in focus from yield maximisation to quality of produce; and finally (iii) focus on value-addition in post-harvest segments.

The technology bogey

However in India, while the first shift has been successful, the second and third shifts have not — largely due to the lack of availability of suitable technology or infrastructure.

Yield maximisation, for example, is hit by climate change — whether in terms of more pests or too much drought, degraded soil conditions. Genetically modified crops are the best answer to mitigate some of these yield related issues but unlike other developing countries and even its neighbours, India remains a fence-sitter when it comes to greater adoption of agricultural biotechnology.

Let’s take the example of Punjab. As a semi-arid topography of the State is traditionally not known for or suited to paddy cultivation. Paddy was traditionally only grown around the floodplains of rivers in Punjab. That, however, did not stop Punjab farmers from taking to paddy cultivation in droves.

Because of the paddy agnostic agro-climatic ecosystem in the State, 5337 litres of water is required to grow one kilogram of rice (data by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices) which is double the figure for West Bengal (2,605 litres), a more conducive habitat for the crop due to its heavy rainfall. In water stressed ecosystem, agricultural biotechnology offers better variants of paddy that can thrive with significantly less water. Despite the endorsement of GM technology by the scientific community, the hesitation to embrace this technology continues.

It is in this context that policymakers need to re-evaluate the long term relevance of agricultural biotechnology. Instead of paying heed to activists with a non-scientific agenda, the long term benefits need to be ascertained and the government needs to incentivise Indian companies and agricultural universities creating new climate-proof strains of crops.

Officials from the drought-stricken Maharashtra visited a field in Indonesia which has been growing genetically modified, drought-resistant sugarcane, usually a very water-dependent plant. Indonesian scientists and officials reported that the healthy-looking sugarcane had not been irrigated for four months. In another case, Indian scientists have developed genetically modified varieties of rice that contain genes from plants that grow in mangroves (which thrive in salt water).

Science is the answer

The modified crops could survive in much higher concentrations of salt water. The opportunities are endless and as the case of GM mustard and Bt Brinjal. Indian scientists are up to the challenge of being the food factory not just for their own country but to other countries as well provided the policy scenario favours scientific innovations in biotechnology.

It is acknowledged that GM technology may not be able to provide solutions to all problems but this should not be a reason for its exclusion as well. All technologies that are safe should be adopted and let the farmers decide what works for them best.

In India, water availability per capita has declined from 5,000 cubic metres (m3) per annum in 1950 to around 2,000 m3 now and is projected to decline to 1500 m3 by 2025 leading to far less water availability for agriculture. The water availability for agricultural use has reached a critical level as the country uses more than 80 per cent of the surface water for this sector alone.

India is also the largest user of groundwater in the world with over 60 per cent of irrigated agriculture and 85 per cent of drinking water supplies dependent on aquifers. Given that industry and households use only 20 per cent of water resources, policy makers should not hold industry by the throat and demand a reduction in their share of water use.

Instead there needs to be concerted effort to utilise the benefits of agri-science to improve water use efficiency and battle climate change.

The writer is Executive Director, Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises, Agriculture Group

Published on May 24, 2017

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