If we are to feed an ever-growing population and save humanity from hunger, we must adopt biotechnology. It is the tool that helps to produce food on less farmland in lesser time, with reduced depletion and damage to water resources and bio-diversity ~ JAYDEV JANA
Earth provides enough to satisfy every man&’s need, but not for every man&’s greed. ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Mankind&’s longest struggle has been the ongoing battle for adequate food. Thomas Malthus was sceptical about humanity&’s chance of winning the battle. He concluded in 1798 that ‘the period when the numbers of men surpass their means of subsistence has long since arrived’. However, Malthus was proved wrong. Seldom has humanity faced the Malthusian spectre of a world in which population can outstrip food production. The ever-increasing production of food was sustained by agricultural technology, a precursor of the Green Revolution. Malthusian concern over the world&’s burgeoning population was again raked up in the late 1960s. Paul Ralph Ehrlich, the biologist of Stanford University, opened his controversial 1968 book, The Population Bomb, with the caveat: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes earmarked upon now.”
The Green Revolution proved him wrong. It saved the lives of one billion people who would have otherwise starved. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his phenomenal contribution to humanity. ‘More than any other person of this age, he helped provide bread for a hungry world,’ to quote the Nobel citation. The Malthusian ‘fear factor’ persists. For the past six years, the world has been facing a food crisis, the outcome of a rapid increase in the international prices of basic commodities. Commodity prices doubled, the estimated number of hungry topped one billion, and food riots erupted in more than 30 countries. A second food price hike in 2010-11 proved that the policies and principles guiding agricultural development and food security are perilously skewed.
The rate of agricultural output over the past few decades has been phenomenal, even for traditional crops. Compared to 1960, the global area under food crops increased by about 12 per cent in 2000. Cereal production increased by over 100 per cent, oil crops by 300 per cent and fruit and vegetables by more than 200 per cent. Food production has not only kept pace with population growth, it has indeed outstripped it. Despite floods and drought, the per capita global food production generally continues to rise. The world now produces more food than ever, and even countries, where famine was once endemic, have achieved self-sufficiency in staple food. If Malthus is said to be correct in his warning that population will outstrip food production, then at least we can say: Malthus Must Wait.
The global food problem is not caused by a falling trend in food production worldwide, or for that matter per capita food output. It is predominantly owing to ‘dietary transition’ witnessed in the late 20th century, chiefly the decline of per capita direct consumption of cereals and the rapid increase in per capita consumption of resource-intensive ‘affluent diet’ like meat and other livestock products. The Indian food basket has also changed dramatically. Diversification of food supply and domestic market reforms, initiated during the 1980s, have offered a wide choice of food items to consumers leading to changes in dietary preferences towards high-value grains (rice and wheat), and products of livestock (milk and meat), poultry, fisheries and horticulture. Several kilograms of cereals are needed to produce one kg of livestock ~ one kg of beef requires around seven kg of grain, a kg of poultry requires roughly three kg of grain, a kg of egg requires approximately three kg of grain to mention a few examples of cereals to animal- derived food conversion ratio.
Apart from ‘dietary transition’, the stomachs of the hungry seem to be competing with fuel tanks. Foodgrains (mainly corn) are now being used moderately for the production of biofuel ~ a cheaper and viable substitute of costlier fossil fuels. Every drop of biofuel consumes crops that could be feeding the hungry globe. Filling a 95-litre fuel tank with ethanol needs about 200 kg of corn. The United Nations has expressed the fear that the boom in biofuels could reduce food security and increase food prices in a world where 25,000 people die of starvation every day, most under the age of five.
Currently, around 40 per cent of all cereals produced globally is used to feed animals or for industry, including biofuel; 50 per cent as food and the remaining 10 per cent as seed. If some of this had been diverted to human use as food in 2008, it might have prevented that year&’s price spike. A substantial amount of food is also lost or wasted every year. A recent UN report, Food Wastage Footprint: Impact on Natural Resources, reveals that one-third of all the food produced in the world for human consumption ~ equivalent to 1.3 billion tons ~ ends up as waste every year because of inappropriate practices, while around 870 million people go hungry every year. The staggering wastage of food costs some $ 750 billion annually to food producers, let alone its impact on environment. In the medium- and high-income countries, food is wasted mainly in the later stages of the supply chain. In the developed countries, this is primarily due to reckless consumer behaviour. In India, fruit, pulses, vegetables and foodgrains, that are wasted every year, is enough to feed around 27 per cent of the people in the BPL category. In the USA, around 30 per cent of all food is thrown away and approximately 32 per cent of all food purchased every year is not consumed by households in the UK.
The crucial issue is the quantity of food that will be required to feed humanity adequately in the 21st century. The quantity is not simply the product of two factors ~ the number of people and the average (minimal) food requirement per person. The total number of food calories which is required for a given number of people (R) is the product of four variable factors ~ population (P), the number of calories per person that is needed to sustain life and health (C), a factor reflecting the conversion of some plant calories to animal calories (D), and the ratio of calories available in the retail market to those consumed (E). That is R=PxCxDxE. The world&’s population reached seven billion in October 2011. Recent UN projections point to a continued increase in the near future; the global population is expected to be between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050, despite a steady decline in the population growth rate. By 2050, food production ought to increase by 70 per cent, according to FAO projections.
The task of feeding the world will be still more difficult in the years to come. The Green Revolution ushered in a ‘reductionist agriculture’ which initially led to rapid growth in productivity but has now created crops that are increasingly dependent on higher, costlier and less efficient doses of fertiliser and pesticides. The ‘technology fatigue’ is also being experienced. Since the 1950s, over a fifth of agricultural land worldwide has been degraded. “There is widespread evidence of soil erosion resulting in losses greatly in excess of 50 million tons of soil per hectare per year, losses that may be five or more times the natural rate of soil formation” (FAO).
In the 21st century, ecological access to food is the biggest challenge because of the damage wrought to land, flora and the atmosphere. Further production of food and feed must be carried out on less land with less water, with fewer agro-chemicals and less fossil fuel. In India, the population is projected to be around 1.69 billion by 2020. To meet the requirement of food for the growing population, the country needs to boost foodgrain production by 1.34 per cent annually to around 280.6 million tons by 2020-21. The problem is that the growth of agricultural production has slowed down since the 1980s.
If we are to feed an ever-growing population and save humanity from hunger, we must adopt biotechnology. In the words of Norman Borlaug, the man who fed the world, “Biotechnology helps farmers produce higher yields on less land. This is a very environmentally favourable benefit.” Biotechnology is the tool that helps to produce food on less farmland in lesser time, with reduced depletion and damage to water resources and bio-diversity. This technology is not a substitute for conventional plant breeding methods. It is a supplementary tool for producing tailor-made genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops.
The writer is a retired IAS officer