In a career spanning many years, I have been driven by one overriding passion: to play whatever part I can in helping rid the world of hunger and poverty. From my early years as a post-graduate at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, through my time working for the Indian Government, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and CGIAR and when in founding the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, I have striven to promote a sustainable approach to tackling hunger and poverty via education, empowerment and appropriate use of science and technology. Great progress has been made in my lifetime in dealing with challenges India faces in feeding its population, but a lot still needs to be done, that too in the face of both a growing population — India’s population is projected to overtake China’s as early as 2030 — and a changing climate.
Half of the agricultural land in India lacks irrigation. Due to the changing climate, the monsoon season is becoming ever more unpredictable. India’s breadbasket states of Punjab and Haryana received only half the normal rainfall in 2014. Figures from the Meteorological Department indicate both received below average monsoon rainfall for the past 16 years. These challenges are significant, but not insurmountable. Even in a country as large as India, land is finite. I have spoken before of the need for the government to ensure that land acquisition legislation contains clear provisions for the safeguarding of good farmland and the creation of special agricultural zones. People, who work that land, also need to be supported. Farmers need practical help during challenging times, whether through kisan centres, educational support to maximise the use of staple crops and encourage diversification, or promoting farm-women. Local, regional and state-wide education and support measures can effect a significant change.
However, this is only part of the problem. We must seek to address not only the challenges we face today, but also those our children, and their children will face. Our changing climate and growing population will require not only optimum utilisation of resources, but also their adaptation.
Fundamental to this is the need to be able to develop new strains of staple crops. It is here that the global community should work together. Crop diversity has fallen dramatically over the past century, to the extent that now only about 150 crops, and a small number of varieties of each of these crops, are cultivated on a large-scale. The risks of relying on such a narrow base are enormous. Good work is already being done to address this. India is home to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, a non-profit organisation that conducts vital research. ICRISAT is one component of a global network of agricultural research centres whose task is maintaining crop diversity in gene banks and using it to develop new varieties. It has worked with 80 other countries on research projects to preserve and grow more resilient strains of sorghum, millets, chickpea, pigeon-pea and groundnut. But long-term funding for these centres is not secure.
In fact, many gene banks have faced cutbacks leading to the loss of unique seed varieties. Fortunately, an international response to this challenge has emerged. Ten years ago, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization for United Nations) and Biodiversity International on behalf of CGIAR founded the Global Crop Diversity Trust to guarantee the conservation of crop diversity, forever.
The Crop Trust’s aim is straightforward — to raise an endowment fund to secure the funding of a truly global system for the conservation of crop diversity in gene banks. This is fundamental to our future prosperity. Much work has been achieved, but much remains to be done if we are to meet the Zero Hunger Challenge.
(The author is the Father of Green Revolution in India)