October 16 is celebrated as World Food Day around the world. It is the day of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) which was established in 1945. The Second World War left several nations badly bruised and devastated; the fear of hunger threatened. Nations have thought of establishing the FAO with a global vision to ensure that enough food is produced to feed the growing population. The world’s population at that time was just under 2.5 billion and growing at an annual rate of about 1.9% per year. Today there are nearly 8 billion people on this planet, and there is enough food to feed them – if they have the money to buy it. Access to food at affordable prices, however, remains a challenge for a significant part of humanity, which leads to malnutrition.
Yet, we can rejoice that the homo-sapiens, who learned to practice agriculture only 10,000 to 12,000 years ago – in their long journey dating back as far as 2,000,000 to 300,000 years ago – were able produce so much food that the entire world population can be fed. This speaks to the success of science and innovations in the agrifood space. Countries that are guided by scientific knowledge and the spirit of innovation, instead of ideologies and dogmas, have produced abundant food, even in the deserts – Israel, for example. And many countries have suffered terrible consequences when pushed by ideologies. China is a good example, when from 1958 to 1961 more than 30 million people starved to death during Chairman Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward”. Mao wanted to transform China from an agrarian society into a communal system of communist ideology. His project was a miserable failure, causing extreme hardship for millions of people. It was Deng Xiaoping, in 1978, who inaugurated the reforms of Chinese agriculture by dismantling the system of communes.
Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India, the second most populous country on the planet, has also suffered by resorting to a development strategy centered on heavy industry as a means of eradicating poverty and becoming an advanced nation. . Two successive droughts in the mid-1960s literally brought the country to its knees to meet the basic food needs of its population. India was forced to rely on PL 480 food aid from the United States and had to live ‘ship to mouth’. Although there were no starvation deaths on a scale close to what China suffered, India quickly realized that such reliance on others for food could lead to political compromises.
The technological breakthrough in high-yielding (HYV) wheat varieties by Normal Borlaug and his team at CIMMYT, and Henry Beachell and Gurdev Khush in rice at IRRI, has provided mankind with the abundance of staple foods. As is known, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, because there is no Nobel Prize in Agriculture, for saving millions of lives through scientific research. He planned to create the World Food Prize, a bit like the Noble Prize for Agriculture. It was established in 1986 and was sponsored by General Foods, the John Ruan family and many others.
The World Food Prize is awarded annually on October 16 at a special ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa. I have attended these events and can say that the almost week-long program to showcase advances in agricultural science, policy and programs has often been an eye opener. Indians including MS Swaminathan, Verghese Kurien, Gurdev Khush and Rattan Lal were the recipients of the award.
Lately, the focus has shifted from simply increasing food production to nutrition and climate resilience. This year’s award went to Cynthia Rosenzweig for her pioneering work in modeling the impact of climate change on food production. Nothing can be more timely than developing tools to understand the impact of climate change when climate shocks are already knocking on our doorsteps with higher frequency and intensity of heat waves, droughts and untimely floods, putting millions of people at risk for food security.
Interestingly, while agriculture is severely impacted by climate change, it is also the source of nearly 28% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, contributing to global warming. It is therefore time to invest not only in climate adaptation strategies, but also to rework our policies that can mitigate GHG emissions for agriculture. The goal of net zero carbon seems ambitious. Although a bit late, it can serve humanity well, if sincerely implemented and this planet can still feed more than 10 billion people.
But changing people’s behavior cannot be achieved in a business as usual scenario. We have to work on policies that encourage people to change the way they do things, whether in agriculture or in any other field. Today, there seems to be a lack of synchronization between policies and technologies. It is high time that India wakes up and doubles or even triples its spending on agricultural research and development and education. Currently, it fluctuates around 0.6% of agricultural GDP for the Center and the States combined. This should be up to at least 1% and preferably between 1.5 and 2% of agricultural GDP. Only then can India be self-sufficient (atmanirbhar) in food, even in the face of adverse climate change.
In the meantime, on this World Food Day, let us pledge to give our best to this planet and meet people’s basic food needs. At ICRIER, we publish our October issue of the Af-TAB (Bulletin of Agrifood Trends and Analysis) on the synergy between food and nutrition security and the environment. Stay tuned.
Gulati is Professor Emeritus at ICRIER. Views are personal
#Ashok #Gulati #writes #Balancing #climate #change #global #nutrition