Tag Archives: India

#Farming Friday: 3 Stories

 

I had a hard time trying to pick one story for the second post in the Farming Friday Series: there was a story about a beginning farmer trying sustainable methods (encouraging!), another farmer’s experience with precision farming ( is this the future?) and one delightful story,with gorgeous pictures, of a farmers’ market in India where people and their cattle come out in their colorful best and a wonderful time is had by all. So I included all three and you can decide which you like best!

Water and Technology in Farming

irri

This post grew from a discussion on Twitter about the state of Indian agriculture. Why, it was asked , would young people, choose to work on farms when they could get less demanding and higher paying jobs in malls and call centers in the cities? Perhaps, technical innovations that would increase productivity and income might make farming a better career choice? Then it was noted that Indian agriculture continues to remain dependent on the monsoons for water and new technology might provide some solutions.   By a curious synchronicity I came across this article on Peruvian farmers using modern technology and older knowledge to deal with climate change that makes rainfall erratic.

The indigenous communities were struggling with new conditions which meant that rainfall came in short, intense bursts and the soil does not retain enough water for pastures or subsistence crops. The weather that they collaborated to collect with the aid of technology painted a bleak picture of an uncertain future for rural communities.The solution: to build water reservoirs similar to those used by the Incas.

What struck me most in this piece is the development and sharing of this knowledge by the community members themselves. Also, the recognition that this program is only a part of the solution. Climate change is going to require a huge and varied effort from all of us, from the farmer in rural Peru to those who are reading and sharing these stories in urban settings. There is no magic wand, no perfect solution, we must try all that we know (including genetic modification) without prejudice.

As I was writing this, I remembered reading about an app that alerts the farmer to when and how much water is needed. I had forgotten to bookmark the source so I decided to search for it and here is the first page of search results!  I had no idea that there was such an array of options available at the swipe of a screen! How accessible and relevant are these for the farmers in Peru or India? That will be explored in another post: do share your experiences and stories in the comments , it would be great to include those as well.

(Image Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

 

Golden Rice: Why We Need It

grice

When Golden Rice (rice enriched with Vitamin A) hit the news recently, it seemed like more of  the same: some are excited about its potential while others caution about its negative consequences. Lately, I have found myself too often reading and responding to the same arguments on this topic on Facebook and Twitter so I was intending to just watch from the sidelines the sidelines. What makes the debate on Golden Rice different, though, is that it was developed by scientists and the results of this research were handed over to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). There are no corporations involved so I wondered what  the  anti-GMO group would base their argument on this time; now that the all encompassing Monster Monsanto flag cannot be raised. Instead of  building up their case with evidence, however,  they decided to go the “shout louder” route and opted to destroy a field of trial golden rice being developed by IRRI in the Philippines.

Timely and accurate reporting ensured that we learnt that the farmers who were supposed to be protesting actually watched in dismay, while a crowd which was brought in for the purpose vandalized the field. This has provoked a strong reaction and protests from scientists the world over who came out in support of the freedom to conduct scientific research. This is, by no means, an isolated event. Incidents of vandalism of experimental work in GMOs is so rife that Switzerland recently found that about three quarters of the research budget for GMOs was actually being used for security. Those who demand the freedom to make their choices are, apparently, not too keen on freedom for others to make their own discoveries.

Then came this piece questioning the need for genetic modification of food and there were some points that really merit further discussion. First, the fortification of rice with Vitamin A  through genetic modification does work. There is a suggestion that eating more carrots or yams or distributing supplements might be just as effective in terms of health outcomes and less expensive than the money spent on GM research. Here, we need to open a little window into the world of those who would benefit most from this technology. The children suffering from Vitamin A deficiency often belong to the poorest sections of society, living in remote rural areas or urban slums. Distributing supplements to the would require the use of a public distribution system which can just as effectively used to distribute golden rice itself.

Next, why the focus on rice? In the lowest income groups, the largest portion of expenditure on food is on staples like cereal, even fruits and vegetables might be an occasional purchase. In India for example, the lower income group diet might consist of rice and lentils with chillies or onions as a side (hence the turmoil over the current rise in onion prices!). It makes sense to add the nutrient to the food group that is consumed at almost every meal and it is important to remind ourselves that in this world, far removed from our own comfortable one, there would be perhaps two meals a day (and certainly no snacks like those cute carrot sticks that are ubiquitous in schools and sand boxes here); so directing the nutrient in the most effective way is crucial. Carrots, yams or any other vegetable would be available only in season (unlike rice) and even then might not make the budget of many households; thus, they are not the best candidates for addressing the deficiency.

Of course, the best outcome would be for the diet to consist of golden rice and also carrots/yams. This brings us to another point of contention. Why frame this debate as an either/or question? There is a grave problem to be addressed here, let us bring the best combination of tools to the table to solve it. Let us celebrate Golden Rice as much as fortified pearl millet and let us do all we can to bring fresh produce to kitchens all over the world.

And then, of course, comes the question of safety. GMOs, we are cautioned, have not been proven safe for human consumption. So let us look at it one more time: the safety and benefits of genetic modification have been endorsed by many institutions so there is no credibility issue here. If one chooses to mistrust these institutions, then that is their personal choice and this should not be allowed to squander the chance to prevent blindness and death for millions of children. Again, we see the demand for freedom to choose for a certain section at odds with their acceptance of others’ right to the same.

No decision comes without a cost and opting for any course of action will involve a cost: do we allow children to to suffer now and try to find a different solution or alleviate suffering with the knowledge that we have today. (An excellent explanation of costs is here). Would we find a solution that satisfies the opponents of genetic modification? How long would this take if we started today? All this is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that we have a tool that can prevent blindness and death in children today and millions of children in need of it.

Another Green Revolution in India?

9688921-front-view-of-a-farmer-holding-plow

In the 1960s, India was facing  a severe food shortage. The Indian economy was decimated by 200 years of colonial rule and the 3 wars fought after gaining Independence in 1947. The country was struggling to grow enough food to feed its people and did not have the resources to import food either. Finally, it was food aid under the US PL480 program that enabled India to to stave off the threat of starvation for millions.  It was in this situation that India decided to adopt Dr. Norman Borlaug’s newly developed variety of medium wheat and what is known as the Green Revolution got its start. As productivity increased, so did rural incomes and many lives that might have been lost to famine were saved.

Despite the criticisms that have since been directed at this program, the enormous good that it did cannot be denied. This video captures the sense of what the adoption of this technology meant to India. While it highlights Dr. Borlaug’s efforts, what struck me most was the enthusiasm of the farmers for innovation, the openness to technology and the unsettling awareness that the path to adoption of technology today may be more difficult. Fifty years ago the decisions about farming were the domain of the farmer who had the knowledge to make those decisions, today the scenario is fraught with those who trust neither science nor those who have grown our food for years (in the case of Indian family farmers, this would mean over centuries!).

India’s “Right to Food” Debate

food

My vacation mornings here, in India, are usually spent in a leisurely session of  sharing newspapers with my father. As I read, I am fascinated  by the lively debate around the Food Security Bill. which basically ensures the right to a certain amount of food for everyone. The discussion is quite sharply divided among those who feel that these would amount to hand-outs and create the Indian version of  “takers”, a term familiar to us from the recent US election. The other side argues that despite impressive growth in recent years, the benefits remain limited to a few sections while most Indians, specially in the rural areas; live in crippling poverty without access to basic amenities like clean drinking water, sanitation, electricity and education. Some effort, they argue, is required on the part of the state that everyone can partake of the growth pie.

This debate is front and centre right now because the political parties are using it in one way or other to substantiate their position in the upcoming elections; the ruling party is pushing for it and worked around the problem of passing it in Parliament by getting it passed as an executive order. This would be applicable for 6 months, close enough to the elections for those in power to claim it as their record. Others think this a bad idea for several reasons: difficulty in deciding eligibility, execution of the program through the existing, leaky public distribution system, cost to the taxpayer etc. But it is simply the more visible version of an underlying dilemma: should India pursue growth alone and let the results work out for themselves or should social goals like education, sanitation etc. be actively pursued by the state? And it is one that reflects the differing attitudes to economic development in India, presented in an excellent article here.

Despite the differences on the ground between India and the US there are ways in which they echo each other: a certain impatience/indifference to those who are struggling. The “if they were any good they would have pulled themselves out, instead they are holding us back” school of thought has supporters everywhere it seems; the ability to ignore increasing inequality is global and the willingness to exploit the issues for political points is robust on every continent.

A very good summary of the debate  can be found here.

Home is Where the Fish Are

fish

As I try to meet the packing deadline for a month long trip back to see my family, two images float in my mind’s eye: one is the monsoon rains bursting down and the other is my mother’s plate of steaming rice and fish curry waiting at my place at the table. While most people today are familiar with Indian food, cuisine from the state of Bengal is less well known. Bengalis are obsessive about their food and there is a strict code to the cuisine: the order in which dishes are to served, what is cooked in which season, which vegetables with what fish; the list goes on. In the old days, young girls were grilled on their cooking skills as part of the arranged marriage interview! Above all, Bengalis adore their fish, abundant in the rivers and ponds of the lush delta the Ganges river forms before tipping into the sea. And of all the fish in the world, the most precious is the “ileesh”. This used to be  the fish of celebration, on festive days, weddings or if India won at cricket!

So reading about the beloved ileesh  vanishing from the earth is liable to stop the Bengali heart.But that is exactly what seems to be happening now, ileesh is growing scarce and Bangladesh (which became a separate country later, but was originally a part of India and shares the language and cuisine of Bengal) has banned ileesh exports. At the root of this is that all too familiar, tawdry tale: we abandoned the code of cuisine which treated the fish with reverence, ensuring that it was used sparingly, never eaten during the egg laying season. Now, we demand it all the time, in ever increasing quantities, even freezing it great chunks of ice to be sent to distant countries. There, it is defrosted, prepared as best as possible, and though completely devoid of flavor after it’s  arduous journey to the plate, still revives memories of home and family, far from the paddy fields.

On a more somber note, this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 which took about 3 million lives.  World War II was on, and the harvest was diverted by the British toward the war effort while the  people who worked to produce the food were ravaged by hunger. An outstanding film on this famine, “Ashani Sanket” seen through the eyes of  people in a village, was made by Satyajit Ray. It is often named as one of the best films ever made and I was a young girl when I saw it but still remember some scenes with much clarity: the lush green fields contrasting with the desperation  and degradation of the villagers, forced to sink to unthinkable levels in their search for food.

Posts might be a little infrequent during the next few weeks…..whatever I can manage in between bouts of food coma! Wishing you all a lovely summer!

 

Bananas for Mother’s Day

mother

Flowers are traditional, yes, but this Mother’s Day I am thinking about bananas. Specifically, the plan to grow iron fortified bananas in India.This plan, predictably, is being met with resistance in some quarters. But, first, some background: India is the world’s largest producer of  bananas and almost all of it is consumed domestically. India also has a very high incidence of anemia. The India Human Development Report 2011 noted that approximately 55-35% of women in the age group 15-49 were anemic and this number had increased  by 3% from 1998-99.  Anemia in pregnant women increases the possibility of pre-term or low birth rate babies. It also implies less than optimal development in utero which means that the physical and mental development of  a new generation is impaired and the cycle of poor health outcomes continues. We also need to consider  a new variable in all of this: climate change.  It is predicted that climate change will have critical impact on maternal and new born health from adverse environmental consequences. It would make sense, therefore, to give special attention to improving maternal health before the worst of the crisis is here.

Given this scenario it makes sense that the Indian government has approved a project for the transfer of technology from Australia to grow iron and nutrient fortified bananas. Bananas, grown locally and easily available, would be an ideal way to meet the nutrient needs of women suffering from anemia. And  where a busy mom pressed for time may not have time to prepare an iron-rich dish separately, she can always grab a banana on the go.

It has, however, been met, with resistance from groups that claim that the “indigenous biodiversity” which is supposedly sufficient for India’s nutritional needs will be “destroyed” and suspect a plot by dark forces to take over the banana domain in the country which is the biggest producer of the fruit. Well, if the indigenous bounty of nature would have been sufficient, we would not be facing these alarming  health statistics. Clearly, women’s diets still remain nutrient deficient and this needs to be addressed. The indigenous variety does not have the same iron content as the fortified one, of course, and none of these critics seem to have suggested any options for either increasing access to indigenous bananas or meeting the nutrient needs in any other way.

To understand the threat to biodiversity, I started researching banana cultivation and found that this is done by planting stem cuttings, so the possibility of threat to the native species is hard to discern. The other fear that this will result in “monocultures” is not a significant one because the most widely eaten banana on the planet is already the Cavendish, the kind familiar to us from grocery stores. In addition , some local varieties are grown in several countries but one variety of banana seems to be dominant already. The technique to fortify bananas already exists and we can speculate that the time taken to bring the fruit to the market would not be that long, so that some improvement in health outcomes might be expected despite the expected adverse impact of climate change in the coming years.

Along with the adoption of fortified bananas,efforts should also be made to revive indigenous iron rich crops which have been overshadowed in recent years.This is not an either/or situation, we can and should take advantage of all the solutions available to us. Certainly we need to protect biodiversity but we cannot overlook the health of mothers and children which will determine how strong our next generation will be. An interesting example in this regard is that of Uganda: faced with banana wilt which was destroying crops and could have resulted in the abandoning of banana cultivation, scientists have developed a variety with a sweet pepper gene which stays can combat banana wilt. Better a GM banana than none at all in a country which prides itself on its banana tradition.

Just like biotechnology, the celebration of Mother’s Day in India in recent years is sometimes criticized  as a western import, alien to indigenous traditions. So it is fitting that my wish for all the moms on this Mother’s Day is that India does grow fortified bananas and we have healthier moms and babies in the future.