Wednesday, June 6, 2007

India Grapples With Food Security

By Anita

The Wall Street Journal posted the following article today:

India Grapples With Food Security
Sameer Mohindru June 6, 2007
Reprinted from:

NEW DELHI -- Cotton output in India is surging just a few years after it started growing genetically modified varieties. Now some are saying the country may have to shift that model to other crops if it is going to succeed in its quest for food security.

Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, cotton, is the only genetically modified crop commercially grown in India. And the wide acceptance of Bt cotton has catapulted India into its new role as a major producer and exporter of raw cotton and textiles.

Cotton production is on an upswing at a time when production of most food crops, including staples such as wheat and rice, has stagnated, leaving a supply gap for food that can be met only by high-priced imports.

At the National Development Council meeting in New Delhi last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to India's "technology fatigue" and "the lack of any breakthrough in agricultural-production technologies in recent years."

Agricultural growth in India lags behind even sub-Saharan Africa, while farm incomes remain perilously low and most farmers struggle with high debt.

The consequences for the Indian economy couldn't be starker. India employs more than 650 million of its 1.1 billion people in agriculture, which last year contributed some 18.5% of gross domestic product, or the total value of goods and services produced there.

And yet even as the second-most populous nation struggles to produce enough food for its own people, it is remaking itself as a major producer of cotton, accounting for almost a fifth of global output, second only behind China, and providing 12% of global exports -- all on the back of Bt cotton.

India has around 120 million hectares under agriculture, but almost 700,000 hectares is lost each year to nonfarm activities. For cotton, plantings are on the rise, to 8.87 million hectares this year from 8.47 million in the 2005-06 season.

Of the current total, Bt cotton accounts for 3.8 million hectares, against fewer than 50,000 hectares in 2002-03. Since the 2003 period, India's cotton output has almost doubled, to 27 million bales weighing 170 kilograms each, and average yields are up around two-thirds, largely because of lower rates of pest infestation in the hardier Bt-cotton varieties.

While increases in cotton plantings have largely come at the expense of cash crops such as peanuts and not food crops, tighter land supply makes the wider acceptance of higher-yielding, genetically modified foods a necessity, according to some.

"If more volumes have to be produced on less land and with limited supplies of water, transgenics will have to play a pivotal role," said Bhagirath Choudhary, national coordinator, South Asia, for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a nonprofit organization.
The agency promotes the use of transgenics, or genetically modified crops. Mr. Choudhary reckons that next year will see cotton production hit 30 million bales.

Observers say Bt cotton is the only significant technological breakthrough in Indian agriculture since the Green Revolution of the 1970s, when the introduction of hybrid seeds jump-started production and ended India's reliance on imports for its staples.

Scientists in India are investigating the use of transgenics in at least 16 crops, including rice, wheat, corn, rapeseed and potatoes, but large-scale trials have yet to be conducted.
Many foods can be grown only once a year, so testing can take a decade or more -- from laboratory to field trial to commercial sign-off.

Observers worry it may take several more years before commercial cultivation of food crops begins, unless research is accelerated. But for cotton farmers, circumstances couldn't be better: The number of transgenic Bt-cotton hybrids available for sowing this year has reached an unprecedented 111 from just 62 in 2005-06.

"In the next few years, India's entire cotton crop will be genetically modified," said R.K. Baldua, vice president at Gujarat Ambuja Exports, a cotton-trading firm.

Higher yields for each hectare sown also mean better returns for farmers. Government studies of a few areas under Bt cotton show that on average, annual incomes of farmers can rise around 11,000 rupees, or over $270, a hectare.

But the enormous increase in acreage hasn't been without controversy. Echoing concerns first raised over a decade ago, particularly in Europe, environmental activists point to the biosafety risk that Bt cotton poses to agriculture at large.

They fear that the Bt gene could contaminate crops grown in adjoining fields and enter the human food chain. New genes in foods can be problematic in two ways: by releasing harmful toxins or by raising a food's propensity to cause allergic reactions. Scientists test transgenic crops for both.
One activist filed a petition last year in the Supreme Court, seeking to restrict trials of several genetically modified crops, including cotton. The court has yet to rule, but has allowed transgenic trials for the time being, subject to a set of technical guidelines that must be followed.


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