It would be shameful if we let GM technology pass

Written by Geeta Nair | Updated: Jul 19 2014, 07:20am hrs
Dr Sanjaya Rajaram often remembers that his mentor, Nobel Peace prize winner Dr Norman Borlaug, always said: Peace does not come from empty bellies. They waged their fight against hunger that helped countries including India feed their ever growing population. The India-born Rajaram, now a citizen of Mexico, will receive the 2014 World Food Prize for his research and breakthrough breeding technologies for wheat one of the big reasons for increase in world wheat production. The World Food Prize is equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Rajaram was a wheat breeder Dr Borlaug hired in the late 1960s and worked with him for decades. UP-born Varanasi district school topper with B.Sc in agriculture from College of Jaunpur, University of Gorakhpur, and Masters in genetics and plant breeding under Dr MS Swaminathan at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Rajaram tells Geeta Nair that adopting new technology and innovations is the way to meet the challenge of feeding growing populations. Excerpts:

Norman Borlaug and you have been closely associated with India's wheat programme. How do you view the progress made so far, and what should be our path ahead to ensure security

Dr Borlaug and a Canadian colleague, Dr Glenn Anderson, believed that Indian agriculture, if managed well, has the potential to feed 1.5 billion people. Our population is now close to 1.3 billion. Advances in wheat alone will not solve our problem. We need to give more attention to monsoon dependent crops such as millets, sorghums, maize and legumes and oilseeds. Progress in these crops will enhance our capacity to meet food security. On the wheat front we need to move to modern silos for storage. We still practice the mandi system of open storage which is not only deleterious to health but we also lose a substantial amount of grain each year followed by monsoon.

Has wheat played an important role in the battle against hunger The spread of high-yielding varieties and disease-resistant wheat expanded output globally. India has become an exporter. Can this growth be sustained Do you see threats to food security in India in the future

Wheat and rice have been sustained for 50 years. We have maintained the small genetic gains. However, the potential to maximise these gains lies in good agronomic practices, especially timely planting. Chemical fertilisers and water played a great role. The response in increased output wouldnt have been possible without dwarf varieties. For this, a lot of credit goes to Borlaug and IRRI short rices. We have scope to maximize production by bringing mechanisation, water use efficiency through modern irrigation systems, micronutrients' application and growth hormones and in certain situation conservation agriculture. We need to give good seeds to all farmers. We need to reach out to the difficult regions with these technologies.

Chemical fertilisers and pesticides were a big part of the Green Revolution but the adverse impact of indiscriminate use is being felt on the soil as well as people's health. How does India deal with the conflicting needs of feeding a billion-plus population without compromising health of the soil or the people

We cannot apply chemicals indiscriminately. This has polluted our precious water systems and environment. We need precision agriculture to avoid these problems. In certain situations, GM crops in control of insects and diseases will help, as in cotton.

There is opposition to GM food in India. You are a supporter of GM crops. How do we address GM food critics fears

We need the best technology to enhance productivity of our agriculture. It would be shameful if we let GM technology pass. But it must meet the requirement of not damaging environment. We must invest in this technology to remain an independent player. We are today very dependent.

With deficit to scanty rains posing a challenge this year, what can be done to deal with climate change occurring frequently Are there wheat varieties that can cope with these drastic changes and continue to sustain production

Not at this stage. However, investment in GM crops will help enhance the capacities of crops against drought, heat, flooding and salinity.

Are you satisfied with the funding agriculture research is receiving in India It is also said agriculture extension services in India are collapsing. Do you agree, and how do you compare it with what is happening elsewhere

The agricultural extension service is poor and it is the trend everywhere. In Mexico it has been replaced with private organizations, farmers' cooperatives and NGOs. We need agricultural experts trained to solve farmers' problems. I am not sure we are training such experts through our university system.

Shouldn't we conserve indigenous seed varieties and is it not critical for the country's biodiversity Any varieties you think need protection

Our germplasm need protection. These are backbones of future breeding. However, I am not sure we can come back with these as cultivars.