Food security good, but govt should also stress nutrition

Written by Banikinkar Pattanayak | Updated: Jun 26 2013, 19:42pm hrs
As many as 700 million people across dry regions of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa live on $2 a day, most of them are Indians. At a time when agriculture was never more threatened by risks from climate change and erratic monsoon, William D Dar, director-general of the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), feels a twin-approach of raising productivity through innovation and enhancing farmers' earnings by harnessing the market mechanism will help alleviate poverty in a great way. The recipient of the prestigious MS Swaminathan award tells FE's Banikinkar Pattanayak that food security is not just about offering rice and wheat to the poor, it is also about the necessary nutritional cover. Excerpts:

What are the areas you are working on to provide food security to the poor

ICRISAT is leading in terms of research for the development of very nutritious crops, including core cereals such as sorghum and pearl millet. We continue to try and improve their productivity as well as nutritional content because these crops are rich in iron which is required by the body. The other categories of crops we are working on are pulses and oilseeds, particularly pigeon pea and chick pea. India is importing around 4 million tonne of pulses a year. So, we have now developed a good variety of pigeon pea, which will help increase pulse production in India. The oilseeds we are working on include groundnut, especially for highly drought-prone areas.

Are you working on anything specific to fight risks to crops from climate change

Very much so. Drought tolerance of crops has been a key objective of our research programme and we are coming up with different varieties for this purpose. We have developed climate-smart varieties of pigeon pea, chick pea, groundnut, pearl millet and sorghum. Nearly 60% of the hybrid sorghum and 80% of the hybrid pearl millet sold by seed companies in India today derives from ICRISAT germplasm.

Are you looking at any other grain crop

No, we are working only on these five crops, but as and when we intensify our research programme in the area of raising farm productivity, we will work on all important commodities in the system. Then we will bring other partners that are working on other crops important to the dry-land ecosystem.

The government is coming up with a food security Bill for the poor. What more do you think is needed for India or is it self-sufficient

The country is doing well in rice and wheat. You are self-sufficient in these big cereals, but not in other crops that are giving you proteins, vitamins, essential oils. You need to promote nutritional security; food security is not just looking at carbohydrates provided by rice and wheat. Those are important, let me mention, but your body needs other sources of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and these come from crops, including legumes, vegetable and fruit. So, thats one policy advocacy I would like to suggest to the government of India to do.

You have spoken about 700 million poor people in Asia and Subsaharan Africa living on below $2 a day. So how can they have food security

The core issue is that these 700 million people in the dry tropics of Asia and Africa are mostly small farmers. So, we need to bring them into an innovation system through a good programme to get them out of poverty. This system should help them raise farm productivity and also increase their earnings so that they can reinvest their gains. Thats what I describe the IMOD (inclusive market-oriented development) strategy. IMOD is our key approach to bring them out of poverty and ensure that markets are harnessed, innovations are utilised and prices are managed.

Around 60% of farm land in the country is dependent on monsoon. How can we reduce reliance on rain-fed areas for food security

There was a green revolution in irrigated areas; we need a green revolution in dry-land areas following a sustainable agriculture and a market-oriented approach so that during the dry season, we can turn these fallow areas into productive areas utilising the crops I have been mentioning--pulses and oilseeds. It is sustainable intensification of farming based on market-oriented development.

With limited land and water resources and rising population, how can nutritional security be achieved

You need to tap the power of science and technology. Developing seed varieties that are climate smart is a key strategy.

Although they are present today, but with the gene pool of climate-smart crops, you can go to the next level. So there are two basic approaches here: Narrowing the yield gap between what is achieved through the farmers usual practices vis-a-vis what can be achieved by ideal farm practices 1.1 tonne per hectare per year that can support 5 people vis-a-vis five tonne of food that can support 25 people a year. So how you can raise the productivity almost five times is the challenge. The second approach is what we call breaking the yield barrier: How to go beyond the 5-tonne-per-hectare level.

Here you need to innovate, using new science tools, genomics, and biotechnology.