Renowned agronomist Dr. Norman Borlaug once said, “you can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery”, a sentiment that holds weight even today, as the world battles a global pandemic. Access to adequate and nutritious food translates to good health, and hence, the key to ensuring a resilient population lies in ensuring food security. Though animal-based foods have better nutritive value with superior digestibility, the water footprint of these is quite high for a tropical country like India to cope with.
Threats to India’s Agricultural Productivity
India is one of the largest food producers in the world, with the agriculture sector employing nearly half of the workforce in the country and contributing to 17-18% of the GDP. Despite this, our country is home to over 190 million undernourished people and ranks 102 nd out of 117 qualifying countries on the 2019 Global Hunger Index. This number is expected to rise significantly under the threat of climate change and its adverse effects on food production. It is estimated that climate change has about 4-9% impact on agricultural output each year, presumably causing about 1.5% loss in GDP annually. India lags far behind most countries as far as productivity (quantity of a crop produced on one unit of land) is concerned. However, total production in India is among the highest in the world, owing mainly to the area under cultivation. Our population size of over 1.3 billion, coupled with resource limitations caused by climate change, has made food security more challenging — with only 2.4% of the world’s total land area, India has to support ~18% of the world’s population. In a scenario where expanding land area is almost impossible, India would require more efforts to enhance productivity as well as resource use efficiency. Thus, stringent and innovative steps need to be taken towards achieving sustainable development goal-2 of Zero Hunger by 2030, which not only targets ending hunger but also focuses on doubling agricultural productivity and farmer incomes.
Lately, there has been an increased push for agricultural reforms and use of modern technology and understanding the key factors that are driving these conversations is necessary for implementing viable solutions. Some of these factors are:
- Agricultural losses due to diseases and pests (amounting to Rs. 50,000 crore)
- Decreasing land availability for agriculture due to urbanization of arable land
- Soil degradation due to several geo-chemical changes
- Post-harvest storage (only 10% produce gets cold storage facility)
- Wastage and pilferage due to gaps in supply chains (> 40% of food, amounting to ~ $14 billion, produced in India is wasted before it reaches the consumer)
- Effects of climate change, along with continued dependence on the monsoon (could reduce farm incomes by 15-18% on average, and by 20-25% in rainfed areas)
- Inefficient use of resources like water, energy and machinery
- Uneven or low access to irrigation, modern technology and formal agricultural credit
- Population growth
Although it is challenging to overcome these factors, concerted efforts are underway to address the key issue of food security. To tide over these multifaceted obstacles, we must look at integrated solutions where science and technology can be critical levers to help India achieve food and nutrition sustainable development goals by 2030.
Role of Science and Technology in Increasing Agricultural Productivity
A rapid and sustained increase in productivity is the only solution to feed an ever-increasing population. There is a constant necessity to develop crop varieties with improved agronomic traits to stabilize production and productivity in agriculture. Conventional plant breeding has been constantly striving to improve crop varieties by selection for higher absolute yields. However, current trends in crop improvement may not be enough to provide sustainable solutions unless innovative technologies are adopted.
Plant breeding continues to evolve and new complementing approaches like molecular breeding and genomic selection provide opportunities to increase genetic gain of complex traits. In addition, speed-breeding and deploying doubled haploids in plant breeding programs are expected to hasten the development of new varieties. However, breeding programs are sometimes limited by the trait donors and their compatibility. Developments in biotechnology have resulted in the creation of new methods that can be applied in breeding, referred to as new breeding technologies (NBTs). NBTs are precision breeding tools that are designed to provide enhanced accuracy and to deliver the desired trait in a targeted fashion. Targeted genome editing by the CRISPR/Cas (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR-associated protein) system that has been developed in recent years falls under this category. This technology is promising because it can accurately generate DNA double-strand breaks at specific, defined locations in the genome of an organism, thereby altering or inserting DNA with targeted speci?city. The tool has been successfully applied and tested in several major crops to generate improved agronomic traits. Importantly, this technology potentially enables us to edit native genes for better agronomic traits, eliminating the need for a transgene. Gene edited crops can offer enhanced crop yields in an environment-friendly way as well as reduce cost of production, eventually producing affordable and quality food for mankind.
Regulatory Framework Governing the Use of Technology in Indian Agriculture
While there are proven benefits for leveraging science and technology in agriculture, it is of the utmost importance to consider any concerns that might arise from lack of awareness or trust. India has a robust regulatory framework governing agriculture and the application of scientific technologies in the field, but its implementation requires a buy-in from all concerned stakeholders. Therefore, conversations around genetic research and its role in strengthening our food systems must happen in a transparent and nuanced manner. Recent developments like the Department of Biotechnology publishing the draft genome editing guidelines, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) approving field trials of Bt Brinjal in 8 states and the 2020 Agri Reform Bills are a promising beginning, but there’s still a long way to go for policies to evolve in order to improve farmer incomes and ensure food security. India’s transformation from an agriculture produce importer to an efficient exporter and our current resilience in maintaining functioning supply chains during a pandemic prove that a multi-stakeholder approach works best. An open dialogue between government, regulators, farmers, communities, scientists, and research bodies is imperative to replicate such successes. Science and technology can act as catalysts for accelerating this development process, so that we can build momentum for growth and fulfill the vision of a self-reliant and hunger-free India.
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